By Ida Petersen, Water Program Manager, Fort Wainwright Directorate of Public Works Environmental DivisionOctober 24, 2018
U.S. Army Garrison Alaska has a new trick up its sleeve in protecting public safety, health and the environment: a specialized foam-free test trailer.
The trailer is designed to eliminate the discharge of chemical fire retardant containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, during testing and training exercises at Fort Wainwright. Currently, several fire trucks and pumpers on the garrison use aqueous, film-forming foam as a fire retardant because it is effective for putting out fuel and aviation fires. Doing so saves lives and protects mission-critical assets.
However, AFFF contains high concentrations of two compounds in the PFAS family that are classified as emerging contaminants: perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, known commonly as PFOA and PFOS. These chemicals have been used in a variety of industrial and consumer products for resistance to heat, water and other substances, notably in firefighting foams, and are linked to multiple ill health effects.
The historical use of AFFF in firefighting and training activities has led to several PFAS-contaminated groundwater plumes in the Fairbanks area. Drinking water on USAG Alaska does not contain elevated levels of PFOA or PFOS, and the water source is routinely tested to ensure it is safe for the most sensitive populations, including nursing mothers and infants.
To prevent health and environmental impacts, no AFFF has been discharged outside of emergency firefighting since 2016 per Headquarters Department of the Army policy.
"For quite a few years we haven't been able to do our annual testing that we do for the [Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting] trucks, and mostly we haven't been able to do the AFFF aspect on that, finding out if the metering system is working correctly," said Chuck Tucker, fire chief at the USAG Alaska Fire Department. "So now having the foam trailer, we'll be able to meet that annual requirement."
The new foam-free test trailer, manufactured by NoFoam System in La Jolla, California, works by connecting to a fire truck's mixing system and measuring flow rates to determine if the correct proportion of chemical-fire retardant is released. Instead of mixing with water, the PFAS-containing solution is diverted into the trailer's tank and can be reused. This test ensures that all systems are working correctly and the mix is optimized to quickly put out fires while preventing any exposure to the environment.
Phasing out of production of AFFF began in 2000, and it is no longer available for purchase in the United States. In the near term, USAG Alaska will continue to keep AFFF in stock for petroleum-based fires because of its superior fire-fighting capability, long shelf-life, and lack of a comparable product that is completely PFAS free. Eventually though, it will need to be replaced by an alternative product.
Current alternative products, such as Phos-Chek, currently used at Fairbanks International Airport, still contain PFASs besides PFOS and PFOA. This product is generally considered safer, but health effects of the other PFASs in it are still being studied. The Department of Defense is investing in research and development of a PFAS-free foam that can rival the effectiveness of AFFF.
The initiative for the Foam-Free Test Trailer was the result of a collaborative effort between the USAG Alaska Fire Department and the Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division.
"It's always good -- the collaboration of all the agencies on the garrison working together, helping out for the greater cause," Tucker said.
The DPW Environmental Division procured the trailer as their FY18 pollution prevention project with the intent that the trailer will be made available not only to the garrison fire departments, but all of the surrounding community fire departments that have PFAS-containing trucks requiring annual testing. This technology is transferrable to all Installation Management Command installations.