Lawmakers weigh ban on toxic, but effective, firefighting foam

Its use at airports, military bases and industrial sites has tainted water supplies

For decades, firefighting foam has been a critical tool for first responders battling intense oil or chemical fires, because it smothers flames in a way that water alone cannot in such situations. 

But the substances that make that foam so effective also make it hazardous to human health, and use of the foam has tainted drinking water near military bases and airports around the state. 

Now, state lawmakers are moving to ban the problematic foam — but with a controversial loophole that would allow New Jersey’s oil refineries to continue using it for years to come. 

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS — are a family of thousands of chemicals that are extremely resilient and generally do not degrade naturally. That quality makes the chemicals useful for a variety of applications and led to the nickname “forever chemicals.” 

But PFAS exposure has also been linked to increased rates of testicular and kidney cancers, decreased birth weights in infants and increased risk of preeclampsia in pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other health effects. 

Grace period 

A new bill moving through the State House (A-4125/S-2712) would ban the use of PFAS-laden firefighting foam after a two-year grace period. Certain industrial facilities with specific safety requirements would get a four-year transition period. The bill would also allocate $250,000 for the state Department of Environmental Protection to create a grant program to help small fire departments pay for getting rid of any old foam stocks. 

“A few other states have already done this,” said Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) who is a co-sponsor of the bill. “Not only do we protect our firefighters, but it’s also about our drinking water, our exposure to these chemicals.” 

Firefighting foam is far from the only source of PFAS pollution, but it is a significant one in places where the foam is most used, like military bases and airports. 

Singleton cited California, Illinois, New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts as examples he followed when working to craft the bill. 

First-term Assemblywoman Shama Haider (D-Bergen) said she co-sponsored the bill in the Assembly because she wants to find ways to end the use of PFAS wherever possible. 

“Something like firefighting foam, which is affecting the health and well-being of our first responders, is something we must do,” Haider said. 

Wide support 

The bill has garnered support from the chemical industry, environmental advocates and firefighter unions, though some of those groups say they’d still like to see tweaks to the legislation. 

“No one is disputing the science,” said Doug O’Malley, the director of Environment New Jersey. “There’s full acknowledgement that PFAS is a toxic chemical, and we need to phase it out.” 

If the bill becomes law, it would be in line with New Jersey’s aggressive action to deal with the state’s widespread PFAS contamination due to its long history of heavy industry. New Jersey was among the first states to adopt drinking-water standards for PFAS, and the Murphy administration has filed several lawsuits related to PFAS pollution. One such case was targeted at companies that made and sold firefighting foam used in the state. 

High contamination rates 

Firefighting foam is far from the only source of PFAS pollution, but it is a significant one in places where the foam is most used, like military bases and airports. Groundwater near Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington and Ocean counties has been found with PFAS levels as high as 264,000 parts per trillion. That’s far above New Jersey drinking water standards for three types of PFAS: 13 parts per trillion for PFNA, 14 parts per trillion for PFOA and 13 parts per trillion for PFOS. 

‘We have to get rid of this stuff. Our [firefighters’] cancer rate has gone through the roof. We should try to start getting away from these chemicals as soon as possible.’ — Matthew Caliente, Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey 

In Colts Neck, the Navy has sought to better understand the spread of PFAS in groundwater that is tied to a firefighting training facility at Naval Weapons Station Earle. The Army has conducted similar studies around Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County. PFAS remediation work is ongoing at the Atlantic City and Trenton airports. 

The federal Department of Defense has pledged to stop using firefighting foams that contain PFAS and phase out its stockpiles by the end of next year. Most local fire departments in New Jersey have either gotten rid of their problem foam or don’t use the small amounts they still have on hand. 

New Jersey’s chemical and oil industries continue to use the foam, though only for emergencies and not for training, according to Dennis Hart, the executive director of the New Jersey Chemistry Council. 

“This specialty firefighting foam is necessary to smother that fire and put it out,” Hart said. “Not doing so could cause a days-long release of chemicals into the air and/or chain reaction of new fires.” 

“There is no alternative right now for this specialty need,” Hart added. “So, what the bill says is you can use it until a product comes along that is viable for doing the job.” 

More time for refineries 

The bill gives oil refineries and petroleum terminals an eight-year grace period to transition to PFAS-free alternatives. It also allows them to seek a two-year waiver twice after that grace period is up, meaning it could be as long as 12 years after the bill’s effective date before New Jersey’s oil refineries have to be rid of their PFAS-containing foam. 

“It’s about the production of new firefighting foams that do not contain PFAS,” Singleton said. “The focus is to make sure that the industry provides us another type of fire suppression tool that can be used.” 

There are two major oil refineries in the state: the Bayway in Elizabeth and Linden, which is owned by Phillips 66 and is the largest refinery on the East Coast, and the Paulsboro Refinery owned by PBF Energy in Gloucester County. Phillips 66 did not address questions from NJ Spotlight News about the extended grace period for refineries. 

“The safety of the community, the environment and our people are of the upmost importance to Phillips 66,” a spokesperson for the energy company said in a statement. “The company fully supports the transition to synthetic fluorine free foam (SFFF) and is actively working to ensure all of its assets in New Jersey make this transition.” 

PBF Energy did not respond to a request for comment. 

Matthew Caliente, the president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, criticized how the bill treats the refineries. 

“If they’re getting a waiver, I would be against it. We have to get rid of this stuff. Our [firefighters’] cancer rate has gone through the roof,” Caliente said. “We should try to start getting away from these chemicals as soon as possible.” 

The bill also leaves an important question unsolved: How to permanently dispose of stocks of PFAS-containing foam. It’s a quandary that scientists and researchers around the world are still grappling with. 

“Right now the solution is to stick it in a 55-gallon barrel and leave it at the site,” O’Malley said. “That’s not a long-term solution.” 

The bill passed the Assembly on a 73-0 vote on Dec. 7, and has been posted for a vote on the Senate floor Thursday. 

Gov. Phil Murphy’s office declined to comment on the bill. 

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