PFAS voluntary well monitoring area

Tap water samples taken from more than two dozen homes west and south of the 533 acres Jackson Hole Airport leases from Grand Teton National Park have tested positive for perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, traced to aircraft firefighting foam.

Jackson Hole Airport is ordering tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of drinking water filters for neighboring residents in response to perfluoroalkyl substances that have leached into the groundwater, potentially threatening drinking water.

Airport board members signed off Wednesday on approximately $255,000 in expenses to continue monitoring the man-made chemicals, known as PFAS, and how they are migrating beyond the airport’s Grand Teton National Park lease area underground in the Snake River Aquifer.

Those funds will also buy and install the water filters. It’s not yet known if the filters will be needed, pending test results of tap water from homes just west and south of the airport.

“I think this is a proactive and smart thing to do here,” veteran board member Jerry Blann said at a Wednesday board meeting. “As we continue down this road, the board has tried to get out in front of this.”

Perfluoroalkyl substances are man-made chemicals found in some everyday household items but also in firefighting foam that the Federal Aviation Administration requires public airports to keep and use in the event of aircraft fires. They are not regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, though legislation has proposed setting maximum limits, and environmental health groups have blasted the federal agency’s inaction.

Still, the EPA has established a 70-parts-per-trillion health advisory level in drinking water due to research linking the compounds to some types of cancer and has documented disease clusters in communities with PFAS-contaminated water.

This past winter, airport officials detected PFAS on airport grounds at more than five times the EPA’s recommended limit, when one monitoring well out of 14 sampled registered 382 parts per trillion. Another well sample exceeded the advisory level, registering 117 parts per trillion. Three others sampled at less than the EPA’s guidance, and nine showed no evidence of PFAS contamination.

Subsequently, airport staff developed a PFAS investigation plan and approached 45 adjacent landowners whose wells are down-gradient in the aquifer to see if they wanted to get their well water tested. Thirty-two residents took them up on it. Tests results are due in late this week or next, Assistant Airport Director Dustin Havel told his board.

“Our goal was to determine the extent that PFAS in groundwater had migrated off-airport,” Havel said. “It is anticipated that levels of PFAS will be found in some of these wells.”

If PFAS are not detected in household wells, the airport has worked out an agreement with the water filter manufacturer to return the units.

Airport staff got the go-ahead to buy 45 filtration systems — one for every residence in a voluntary well testing boundary (see map online, attached to this story at JHNewAndGuide.com) — at an expense of $128,000, including installation costs for the carbon-based systems. If homeowners don’t want a filtration system, they would not be required to have one, Havel said.

The remaining expense, another $128,000, is for more monitoring.

Board members signed off on an environmental services contract amendment with an airport consultant, Mead and Hunt, that will retest the 14 wells for PFAS, plus test an additional 20 more drinking water and irrigation wells farther from the airport.

Airport activities have affected area groundwater in the past. In 2014, the U.S. Geological Survey completed an investigation that found traces of benzotriazoles, a proprietary component in glycol-based deicer, in the aquifer, which flows west-southwest at a rate of 25 to 68 feet per day, according to the research. The USGS continued that monitoring work in subsequent years, and it is expected to release another report about whether the aquifer has rebounded from the deicer.

Following the federal agency’s report, the airport installed a $6.2 million deicer recovery pad, which collects the fluids to have them shipped away by truck.

The deicer compounds used today are “vastly different” from those used in the past that contained benzotriazoles, Jackson Hole Airport Director Jim Elwood said in an interview.

The airport has also changed its protocol for using firefighting foam that contain PFAS, Elwood said.

“We stopped using it in training exercises,” he said, “and we’ve made the commitment that we’ll only disperse it moving forward when there is a direct life safety concern.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

(1) comment

Frank Petrini

I live west of the airport and no one asked me to have my water tested. Also, if this stuff leaks into the aquifer it'll affect more than just the residents around the airport. Finally, there have been questions about airport water contamination for a number of years now. Why haven't they solved it before now?

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