Tap water samples from more than two dozen homes west of Jackson Hole Airport have tested positive for perfluoroalkyl substances traced to aircraft firefighting foam that leached into the groundwater after training drills.
The man-made compounds, also known as PFAS, had previously been found at levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level in monitoring wells on the 533-acre parcel that the airport leases from Grand Teton National Park.
As a precaution, the airport purchased water filtration units for its neighbors and offered free water quality tests to residents with wells immediately down gradient in the Snake River Aquifer.
Results of those tests came in last week, showing that measurable traces of PFAS had migrated into the drinking water of 28 of 32 residences where owners had their water tested.
“This is an unfortunate situation, but I really appreciate the airport’s response,” Teton Conservation District Water Resource Specialist Carlin Girard told the Jackson Hole Daily. “They don’t have a regulatory requirement to test for these chemicals, and they did so in a proactive manner. My understanding is they’ve taken every action that they can to be as responsive and helpful as possible to those people down gradient.”
At this juncture, airport staff is arranging site visits with plumbers, electricians and residents to get the water filtration systems installed, Airport Director Jim Elwood said. Since letters with results went out last week, a “handful” of people have expressed interest in one of the complimentary carbon-based water filtration units, he said.
Jackson Hole Airport is investing about $128,000 in additional water monitoring to further define the extent to which PFAS has migrated off its property. An environmental consultant the airport contracts with, Mead and Hunt, is spearheading that work and will retest the airport’s 14 wells for PFAS, and test an additional 20 drinking water and irrigation wells off site.
At their last meeting, airport board members also authorized the purchase of 45 water filtration systems — one for each lot in the affected subdivision. Purchasing and installing all of those could cost up to $128,000, a price tag similar to the water monitoring efforts.
Although the EPA does not yet regulate PFAS, the federal agency is developing an action plan for the substances, which are considered an emerging health hazard.
Animal studies suggest that PFAS, sometimes called “forever chemicals,” can cause developmental issues for infants during pregnancy and have been linked to cancer, liver and thyroid problems, and immune system issues.
The EPA has established a 70-parts-per-trillion health advisory level.
While PFAS concentrations in the airport’s on-property monitoring wells topped out at 382 parts per trillion, the tests of residential wells showed that levels in drinking water barely crossed the federal threshold, with an exceedance detected in a single well.
While nearly 88% of the 32 drinking wells tested had some level of PFAS, 9 in 10 turned up concentrations below 46 parts per trillion.
Grand Teton Meadows Homeowner’s Association President Keith Hall said that his well tested at 35 parts per trillion, a level he personally feels is “not terribly alarming.” Fellow residents, he said, have generally been appreciative of the airport’s response.
Crediting the airport for acting quickly, Hall said: “I think they’re trying to do the right thing.”
Since becoming aware of the PFAS pollution, Jackson Hole Airport has stopped using the FAA-required firefighting foam during training exercises and committed to using the compound only when deemed necessary to protect human life.