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State, federal regulators disagree with Air Force on next steps for PFAS cleanup at Joint Base Cape Cod

A 6,200 acre PFAS plume in Falmouth and Mashpee originated from past fire training activities at the Joint Base.
Courtesy Air Force Civil Engineer Center
A 6,200 acre PFAS plume in Falmouth and Mashpee originated from past fire training activities at the Joint Base.

State and federal regulators are not seeing eye-to-eye with the Air Force on next steps for cleaning up the harmful ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS from Joint Base Cape Cod.

A 6,200 acre plume of concentrated PFAS stemming from the base's old fire training area led to groundwater contamination in Mashpee and Falmouth, including Ashumet and Johns Pond.

PFAS are chemicals found in firefighting foam that was previously used at the site.

The Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC) began testing the area for PFAS in 2015 after being asked to sample for the emerging contaminants by the EPA.

A recent AFCEC draft supplemental feasibility study on cleanup plans for the plume said the group is not evaluating active groundwater remediation for the area downgradient of Ashumet and Johns Pond.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have both made comments on the study, stating an active cleanup in the area to the south and east of the ponds needs to be considered.

MassDEP spokesperson Ed Coletta responded to a CAI email to clarify their comments on the study.

“It is the MassDEP position that a remedy for the capture and treatment of PFAS6 contaminated groundwater should be evaluated in the Draft FTA-1 (fire training area) Feasibility Study for this area of the Sagamore Lens Sole Source Aquifer impacted by PFAS6."

MassDEP regulates for six PFAS chemicals, known as PFAS 6.

Comments from Robert Lim, a Remedial Project Manager with the EPA echoed the sentiment, saying the study was “incomplete” because it did not include active remediation for the area downgradient of the ponds.

Rose Forbes is Remediation Program Manager with AFCEC at Joint Base Cape Cod.

In an interview with CAI, Forbes said the estimated $200 million cost of the cleanup for the downgradient area was part of the reason why it didn't make it in the recent study, saying the plume had relatively low concentrations of PFAS.

“It’s not just about the money though. We’ve also addressed the exposure risks in this area, so nobody’s drinking this water. We’ve connected a lot of the private wells to municipal water. We provide bottled water to a couple remaining homes. We’ve done filtrations systems. We’ve put wellhead treatment on the municipal wells that are within this plume,” she said.

A meeting between AFCEC, MassDEP and EPA to resolve comments on the study has not been scheduled yet.

The Joint Base Cape Cod Cleanup Team is holding an online public meeting Wednesday, August 30 at 6pm. The meeting will include updates on emerging contaminants. Click here for details on how to join the Microsoft Teams meeting.

MassDEP's comments on the feasibility study also called for the AFCEC to take expedited environmental action at the old fire training area.

A recent Harvard study found most of the PFAS-contaminated soil at the fire training area remains in the ground below the site.

An aerial view of the fire training area at the Joint Base, taken in the '90s.
Air Force Civil Engineer Center
An aerial view of the fire training area at the Joint Base, taken in the '90s.

Forbes said she’s pushing to extend a series of nearby extraction wells that would help with the problem.

“What we need to do is just redesign this, extend the extraction wells a little bit farther, and we’ll be able to cut the PFAS plume off and keep it from going into Ashumet Pond. And once that’s done, that will help the majority of the plume clean up over time.”

Forbes said there wasn’t funding for the plan in the coming fiscal year, which starts in September. She said she plans to put in for the project in Fiscal Year ’25, meaning the soonest it could happen would be September 2024.

In the meantime, Forbes says companies are using the fire training area to test out new technologies to get rid of PFAS, including the Boston-based Allonnia.

“There are a lot of people out there that are coming up with great ideas on how to clean this up in the most efficient manner. They need to test it in certain areas to make sure it works,” she said.

Forbes said the AFCEC cleanup team might also decide to put a cap over the source area at the fire training site to stop groundwater from moving through.

“We do have capping planned for this area unless one of the demonstrations pans out and there’s a better technology to use before then."

At a public update this month, consultants for Cape God Gateway Airport said they used a cap to limit groundwater seeping into a PFAS plume near the Hyannis facility.

Past use of firefighting foam at the airport was the source of that contamination.

Another PFAS cleanup effort on Cape Cod is happening at Barnstable County’s former fire training academy in Hyannis.

Local officials have called for the two Hyannis-based cleanups to coordinate their efforts.

Barnstable Town Councilor Betty Ludtke spoke at the Airport’s PFAS update in August.

She asked for the Airport to share the findings from its project with Barnstable County since the Airport’s cleanup is in its final stretch, but the County’s fire academy cleanup is still in the early phases.

Ludtke also said she got her personal results from a recent Silent Spring study looking at the health effects of PFAS.

“I drank the water for ten years. I have very high levels of PFAS. Extremely high. So what am I supposed to do? It’s not a theoretical thing,” she said.

Hyannis drinking water has been treated for PFAS since 2016. Earlier this year, the EPA proposed national regulations on PFAS in drinking water.

A federal study suggests PFAS may be in about 45% of the country’s tap water supplies.

A recent New York Times article said testing has shown PFAS have been found in cookware, dental floss, clothing, menstrual products, artificial turf, protective gear worn by firefighters and several other products.

The National Institutes of Health said certain PFAS may increase the chance of hypertension during pregnancy, "with potential implications for subsequent maternal and child health outcomes."

The American Cancer Society said increased exposure to PFAS can lead to heightened risk of cancers in some people.

PFAS are referred to as forever chemicals because they don’t degrade over time due to the strength of the carbon-fluorine bonds they’re made up of.

The U.S. Department of Energy said PFAS were first invented by DuPont when the company was developing Teflon in the late 1930’s.

The Department also said PFAS were produced on an industrial scale for the first time during the development of the atomic bomb, for separating uranium during the Manhattan Project.

Some sources of PFAS contamination throughout the country can be found through the EPA’s online map.

Brian Engles is an author, a Cape Cod local, and a producer for Morning Edition.