Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) was introduced over 50 years ago as a way to fight oil and chemical fires. Since then, AFFF has been used extensively at airports across the country, not only to fight fires, but also to train the personnel and test the equipment necessary to deploy it. But, in recent years, concerns have grown over toxic chemical compounds known as PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA, found in AFFF. Large volumes of AFFF – and consequently PFAS – have been released at airports, contaminating the soil, surface water, and groundwater. These “forever chemicals” do not naturally break down in soil or water, so facilities that historically used AFFF are likely to be contaminated by PFAS for many years to come.
Cleaning up PFAS contamination can cost millions of dollars upfront and require years or even decades of ongoing operations and maintenance. The Department of Defense has estimated that the cost of clean-up at its sites alone (including airfields and similar facilities) could be more than $2 billion, but no one yet knows what the full cost will be.
One option to offset the coming costs of cleaning up PFAS contamination is to use the legal process to hold manufacturers of products containing PFAS accountable. For the past 20 years, drinking water providers impacted by the presence of man-made contaminants in their supplies have been bringing lawsuits against the manufacturers of the products that contained the contaminants, resulting in billions of dollars in recoveries that have been used for treatment expenses. Airports who may soon be responsible for cleaning up PFAS contamination are proactively considering these same legal options to recover potential clean-up costs against the manufacturers of AFFF and, ultimately, manage the risk of these potential expenses. Many of the law firms that handle these lawsuits work on a contingency fee basis, meaning that airports who choose to bring suit against the responsible manufacturers will not incur any fees unless the case is successfully resolved.
Public concern over PFAS contamination is building. Because airports are known sources of PFAS contamination from AFFF, and both the EPA and state regulators are insisting on reducing PFAS in the environment, both public and regulatory attention will increasingly be falling on airports. If you are concerned you may have PFAS contamination at your facility, facing the issue head-on is a way to build trust with your community and protect your reputation. Litigation against the responsible manufacturers of AFFF will help demonstrate that your airport is being proactive in addressing this growing environmental and public health issue.
From a cost-benefit analysis standpoint, taking legal action makes sense. Although litigation has a reputation for requiring significant work for the client, experienced law firms like SL Environmental Law Group provide:
Because you only pay if and when you win, there is no downside to taking proactive steps amidst regulatory uncertainty. If, for example, airports are provided with exemptions from some of the coming PFAS regulations—as many argue they should, given federal requirements to use AFFF—and as a result, you don’t incur any cleanup costs, you've lost nothing by engaging a contingency fee law firm. If, on the other hand, no such exemptions are created, and airports are made responsible for cleaning up the mess made by AFFF, you've preserved your ability to bring claims against the responsible manufacturers.