Mass. city receives $1.35M reimbursement from Air Force for water contaminated with firefighting chemicals
By JIM KINNEY | MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass. | Published: December 5, 2019
WESTFIELD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — The city has received its $1.35 million reimbursement from the U.S. Air Force, money Westfield was owed because firefighting chemicals from Barnes Air National Guard Base contaminated the city’s drinking water supply.
Acting Mayor Ralph J. Figy announced Thursday that the money arrived Dec. 2 and said city officials are now determining how best to use it.
The City Council voted hurriedly back in September to accept the money, its time frame pushed by a delay in the funds becoming available and the end of the federal fiscal year in October.
Figy is the council president and Ward 2 councilor who took over as mayor with the resignation last month of Brian Sullivan. Mayor-elect Donald Humason, currently a state senator, takes office in January.
The reimbursement follows efforts of the city’s Law Department and U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, and Westfield Public Works Director Dave Billips and his staff. Billips said he met with Neal both in Washington and Springfield.
The firefighting foam chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been shown to cause developmental, immunological and organ problems in laboratory animals. The air base quit using that type of foam for firefighting drills in 2015.
Westfield has joined in a federal lawsuit with other communities facing the same contamination. Defendants are manufacturers 3M Co., Chemguard Inc. and Tyco Fire Products LP. The lawsuit is pending in the federal courts.
Accepting the Air Force money doesn’t hurt the city’s position in the lawsuit and doesn’t prevent it from getting more money from the Air Force in the future, officials said.
Figy said the money is meant to cover costs incurred between Jan. 2, 2017, and Sept. 28, 2018, to treat water sources contaminated with PFAS in excess of the Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.
There was some debate at that September meeting when the council accepted the money over what specifically to do with it.
Figy said Thursday no decision has been made yet. But possibilities include using it to pay down the $13 million bond the city approved in 2018 to finance filtration work plus other unrelated improvements.
One other possibility would be to hold onto the money in case there are cost overruns for granular activated carbon filtration equipment — still in the design phase — at Wells 1 and 2.
Granular activated carbon filtration equipment at Wells 7 and 8, also located near the air base on the north side of town, remains offline despite city assurances this summer that it would be up and running by Labor Day.
Figy said only that there have been delays and that the city is working on it. In the past, the city has said there are issues with the acidity and alkalinity of the water.
On Wednesday Billips said the building at Wells 7 and 8 is not completed and won’t be ready until spring, when water demand will rise and make it worthwhile to turn on the equipment. Water demand is low in winter.
Granular activated carbon has been used to remove contaminants in Westfield both at the North End wells and at a plant removing agricultural chemicals from well water collected off Shaker Road in the southern part of town. The Shaker Road plant has been operating for more than 20 years.
PFAS contamination is an issue all over the country, especially near airports, air bases and factories where these “forever chemicals” were used or manufactured. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has proposed using state budget surplus money to help communities pay some PFAS expenses.
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