NC fire departments stuck with 120,000 gallons of toxic foam; legislation has funds to buy it back

Legislation also funds special contained training, research site for PFAS foam at Stanly County airport

By: - April 21, 2023 6:00 am
This is a photo of a metal sculpture and monument to firefighters. The sculpture is of three firefighters, one helping a colleague who has collapsed. Another has a firehose as if putting out a fire.

The firefighters monument in Nash Square, Raleigh. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Fire departments across North Carolina have on hand more than 120,000 gallons of firefighting foam that contains toxic PFAS, according to state data, and have used it 51 times to extinguish blazes in eight months.

For decades, PFAS-containing foam, known as AFFF, has been used to suppress fires involving petroleum products or other flammable liquids. Firefighters have also deployed it in training exercises, unaware that the foam harmed their health.

The AFFF inventory and usage database, hosted by the State Fire Marshal’s website, shows where the toxic foam was deployed over eight months and lists the local fire departments that still have it in stock.

This data, and the scientific research on the serious hazards posed by AFFF to firefighters, the general public and the environment, have prompted several North Carolina lawmakers to introduce legislation this session to reduce or eliminate its use. Twenty-four states have already passed laws restricting or banning AFFF in training exercises.

Exposure to even very low levels of PFAS (short for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) has been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, kidney and testicular cancers, immune system deficiencies, obesity, high cholesterol, and reproductive and fetal development problems. 

People can be exposed through drinking water, microwave popcorn bags, compost, artificial turf, fast food containers, water-, stain- and grease resistant fabrics and hundreds of other consumer products. PFAS are widespread in the environment, and nearly everyone on the planet has some level of the compounds in their blood. 

Firefighters, though, are especially at risk because of their exposure to AFFF, as well as their gear, which contains PFAS to make it water-repellent. 

AFFF can also enter the drinking water supply after a fire by seeping into groundwater and entering rivers and streams.

Previous legislation mandated that the roughly 1,200 fire departments in North Carolina conduct an inventory of their AFFF and where it was deployed. The departments enter that information into a state database; the fire marshal’s office can then send staff to the site of the fire to evaluate the use of the foam, as well as where it might have entered the environment through runoff.

Ninety-nine percent of the fire departments – 1,211 – have responded. Of those, 750 reported having AFFF, a cumulative total of 120,246 gallons.

For context, the state of Michigan reported that as of 2020, of its 800 fire departments, 355 had 51,400 gallons of AFFF.

View the State Fire Marshal’s inventory and usage page for individual fire department data.

We’ve also compiled general county data — number of gallons per county, number of fire departments with AFFF — in a separate PDF document and in an Excel spreadsheet.

Urban counties in North Carolina with major airports reported the largest amount of AFFF:

  • Mecklenburg – 15,699
  • Guilford – 14,534
  • Wake – 9,885
  • Cumberland – 8,577
  • New Hanover – 5,995

Five counties reported they had no AFFF: Ashe, Hyde, Jackson, Tyrrell and Watauga.

North Carolina is the first state to track when AFFF is used, said Jeffrey Warren, research director for the NC Collaboratory, a scientific research center at UNC-Chapel Hill. From September 2022 through February 2023, AFFF was used 51 times, all of it for firefighting purposes, none for training. 

The Gaston County Fire Department deployed AFFF last December to put out a blaze at Carolina Metals, the second fire at the scrapyard that year. AFFF is often sprayed at vehicle crashes when gasoline is released and could catch fire: several wrecks on I-40 near Cary and Raleigh necessitated the use of AFFF.

A map of North Carolina with 1,211 green dots spread throughout the state. Each green dot represents a fire department that conducted an inventory for AFFF. Of the 1,211 departments, 750 reported having the PFAS-containing firefighting foam on hand.
Each green dot represents a fire department that conducted an inventory for AFFF. Of the 1,211 departments, 750 reported having the PFAS-containing firefighting foam on hand. (Graphic: Office of State Fire Marshal)

Senate Bill 658 and HB 349 would appropriate $20 million in one-time funds to the NC Collaboratory for a voluntary AFFF buyback program. Local fire departments could get rid of their AFFF and replace it with fluorine-free foams.

Some local fire departments received AFFF from the Department of Defense, which is now phasing out the toxic foam. “These fire departments don’t want it,” said Warren.  

The conundrum for the Collaboratory, though, is how to handle the AFFF it receives through the buyback program. “We don’t want to export the waste somewhere else, because you have social equity issues,” Warren said. “We need a multi-pronged approach. We want to offer a way to take the foam and destroy it, not dispose of it”.

The proposed solution in the legislation is to use AFFF from the buyback program for research and use at a firefighting training at the Stanly County airport. Part of the $20 million would go toward the planning and construction of an Advanced Rescue Training Facility, operated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

A photo of State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor in a dark blue uniform and a gold badge.
State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor (Photo: State Fire Marshal’s office)

State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor, a firefighter for 35 years, told NC Newsline that while fluorine-free foam will be the norm, some types of fires nonetheless will require the use of AFFF. These would include gasoline pipeline and tank farm fires. 

“We want to minimize the uses,” Taylor said, adding that only hazardous materials teams would use AFFF.

Hazmat teams still have to train on AFFF, as well as fluorine-free foam, Taylor said, because each material behaves differently. Researchers would also use data from the controlled use of AFFF to develop new protective equipment or training techniques.

The Advanced Rescue Training Facility will be specially designed – made of concrete and self-contained – to contain runoff from AFFF, Taylor said. “We don’t want the foam getting into the environment.”

HB 732 and 370 would ban most uses of AFFF, except for certain training exercises. In those cases, all the foam must be contained onsite and can’t enter the environment.

The Stanly County Airport abuts the Stanly County Air National Guard Base. In 2021, Attorney General Josh Stein sued more than a dozen manufacturers of AFFF and PFAS over contamination at and leaving the base, which is known to be contaminated with PFAS.

Groundwater at the base has tested as high as 985 parts per trillion, court documents show. If that were used for drinking water, the concentration would be hundreds of thousands higher than the EPA’s proposed maximum contaminant level. Little Mountain Creek runs through the airport and the National Guard site, then travels through the historically Black community of West Badin — home to Alcoa, another major polluter — and onto Badin Lake, a drinking water supply.

The case is ongoing.

The new legislation would also fund the development and use of technologies to destroy PFAS-containing AFFF. That destruction would preferably occur at the training center so the foam would not have to be transported, Taylor said.

Already, private companies are seizing on the slow-moving environmental disaster of PFAS. One remediation company, EPOC Enviro, of Australia, recently announced it would open its first North American facility in Statesville. 

374Water, based in Durham, is also scaling up its destruction technology, using high temperatures and extreme pressure to break the fluorine-carbon bond that makes PFAS so persistent in the environment. (374 stands for degrees Celsius, equivalent to 704 degrees Fahrenheit.) The leftovers from the treatment are inert; the heat, reusable.

Affected communities in southeast North Carolina have long clamored for comprehensive health studies, conducted by academic researchers or health departments, but paid for by Chemours, the main source of PFAS in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin. 

The legislation appropriates $4 million to the Collaboratory for a multiyear human exposure study in counties identified with higher-than-average PFAS exposure risks through air, drinking water, food intake and dermal exposure.

Priority would be given to those living in counties and communities whose primary drinking water source is the Haw River or the Cape Fear River; those who live near industrial plants that process or use PFAS and are located within the Cape Fear and Lumber River Basins. Other communities that have a heightened risk or other health factors could also qualify.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.