Airport deemed hazardous waste site
LAKE CLEAR — The Adirondack Regional Airport may be a great place to get a flight or a flying lesson, but it’s also a hazardous waste site.
Last week, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation sent the airport a notice that it had been classified as a Class 2 Superfund site that may present a “threat to public health and/or the environment.” It it not, however, among the 40,000 federal Superfund sites where the cleanup and containment of hazardous substances is overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
This did not come as much of a surprise to Airport Manager Corey Hurwitch, or to Harrietstown Supervisor Mike Kilroy. The town of Harrietstown owns and operates the airport, which it has done since 1960.
Their lack of surprise was not lack of concern. It was because such contamination is so common. The Lake Clear airport is one of hundreds across the country that have been found to have high levels of chemical contamination in recent years.
“We’ve kind of been waiting,” said Hurwitch on Wednesday. “If you look around, it’s clear that airports are known problems. There’s all sorts of lawsuits out there.” Hurwitch sounded resigned. “We’ve been waiting for guidelines from the DEC.”
The state has done tests at the airport over the last few years on the groundwater and surface water, including from the several wells around the airport, hangars and runways. In 2017, the state Department of Health took water samples, with some wells showing elevated levels of chemicals. The chemicals are PFAs: a broad group of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances that contain several classes of durable chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals,” that are known to cause cancer and other health problems in humans.
These chemicals were developed in the 1940s, and in the 1960s the U.S. Navy helped develop firefighting foams using them. That’s how they got into the ground and water at so many airports across the country.
The Adirondack Regional Airport first opened in 1942. The airfield covers about 1,500 acres of land.
“We know it’s a problem,” said Hurwitch. After the 2017 test results, the water used in one hangar was designated as non-potable, and an outside agency was hired to do cleanup work. The DEC hired another agency to do further tests on soil and groundwater. The airport stopped using old “legacy” foams that had higher concentrations of the toxic chemicals.
The airport restaurant — called the Adirondack CAVU (an aviation term for “ceiling and visibility unlimited,” i.e. clear skies) Cafe and a popular spot for locals — was not affected, either in 2017 or by last week’s designation.
Fires are rare at this airport, but you still have to be able to put them out. Much of the foam that caused the chemical spread was used in airports when there weren’t any fires, as part of mandated routine testing of the firefighting system. In March, as part of an Federal Aviation Administration grant, the airport got a $700,000 new fire truck that can be tested without spreading toxic foam.
“It’s not something that showed up overnight,” said Hurwitch, who has worked at the airport for a dozen years. Since he’s been there, all the foam testing has been done at a site at some distance from the hangar, at a site off of taxiway Bravo. One of the issues, he said, is that the airport is fed by wells — there are six on airport land — rather than by a municipal water system.
The well that’s closest to the testing site had high levels of chemicals, said Hurwitch, but not as high as another site, which he finds curious.
“Everyone’s assuming that it’s from the foam,” he said as he drove his pickup truck down an approach to one of the farthest runways. “But I’m not ruling out that there’s not more going on. Airports have always been known as good dumping sites.”
So what happens next?
“That’s a good question,” said Hurwitch. The issue will come up at upcoming board meetings, and it’s his hope that the town will hire a consultant to help determine the next course of action.
“More research, and then figure it out. We’re trying to do the right thing.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear has been declared a federal Superfund site. It is a New York state Superfund site, overseen by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, but not a federal Superfund site listed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Enterprise regrets the error.)