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Delay in cleanup of PFAS 'forever chemicals' at Cape Cod's former fire academy resolved

A "Pit Fire" demonstration at the academy in 1959.
Barnstable County
A "Pit Fire" demonstration at the academy in 1959.

A delay in Barnstable County’s cleanup of so-called ‘forever chemicals’ at the former fire training academy in Hyannis has been resolved.

Past training activities at the academy led to PFAS groundwater contamination. The harmful chemicals are found in firefighting foams and increased exposure to them has been linked to several health issues.

The County’s cleanup team has been installing monitoring wells in the surrounding area to determine how far PFAS have spread.

Assets and Infrastructure Manager Paul Ruszala gave a public update this week.

He said getting permission to install wells on nearby Mass Fish and Wildlife properties held up work.

“I’m happy to say that we recently have been granted access to drill some monitoring observation wells, which are critical to the understanding of the groundwater in that area.”

Ruszala noted there was a good working relationship with Mass Fish and Wildlife. He said the monitoring wells will be installed this month.

The cleanup team is still determining just how far PFAS have spread from the former academy.

Last year, the team said the plume was well over 2000 feet.

The plume in the groundwater has traveled from the academy site and past the nearby Cape Cod Gateway Airport.

Ruszala said even though the cleanup team hasn't finished mapping the plume, a temporary groundwater treatment system is now operating.

“We’re looking at having to expand it. It’s currently not adequate to handle the plume coming off of our property.”

He said an expansion of the treatment system isn’t likely to start until next year.

The total cleanup could cost as much as $59 million.

Ruzsala said there hasn’t been an update on the County receiving funds from a settlement with the companies that manufacture the firefighting foam.

The Barnstable County Commissioners recently proposed moving roughly $8 million from the County’s unreserved funds to a dedicated PFAS cleanup fund.

Hyannis drinking water has been treated for PFAS since 2016.

Meanwhile, Hyannis residents who participated in a Silent Spring Institute study looking at the health effects of PFAS are being notified of their results.

Massachusetts PFAS and Your Health Study lead Dr. Laurel Schaider confirmed to CAI in a December email that all study sites throughout the U.S. – including Hyannis – completed their data collection this fall.

Schaider said the study is planning to hold a community event this year to share community-level results.

PFAS exposure is not limited to drinking water. The chemicals are found in a variety of everyday products like cookware, hygiene products, food packaging, and clothing.

Health risks from increased PFAS exposure include a heightened risks of some cancers, immune system disorders, and an increased chance of hypertension during pregnancy.

A 2022 National Institutes of Health study found PFAS may also be neurotoxic and linked with some age-related psychiatric illnesses, as well as neurodegenerative diseases.

The study’s conclusion states: “Considering there is evidence more people are dying from age-related neurodegenerative disease in an area with high PFAS contamination, it is imperative that mechanistic studies are conducted to better understand the long-term consequences of PFAS on aging and neurological function.”

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