Tampa airport board files lawsuit in ‘forever chemical’ contamination case

The lawsuit alleges firefighting foam left PFAS in places including at Tampa International Airport.
Planes parked at the passenger boarding bridges of the Tampa International Airport in May.
Planes parked at the passenger boarding bridges of the Tampa International Airport in May. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 17, 2020|Updated Aug. 18, 2020

A lawsuit filed last month by the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority accuses firefighting foam manufacturers of negligence in selling a product that has contaminated local airports with harmful chemicals.

The lawsuit alleges the compounds “are present in certain areas of” Tampa International Airport, Peter O. Knight Airport, Tampa Executive Airport and Plant City Airport. They are commonly called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down well and may taint the groundwater and soil, accumulating over time and sickening people who ingest them.

A spokeswoman for the Aviation Authority declined to answer questions about where specifically the chemicals have been found or at what levels.

“Because of pending litigation, we cannot comment on specifics of the case or speculation of damages,” wrote spokeswoman Emily Nipps. “The lawsuit is a proactive step by the Authority to recover potential costs associated with any future mitigation or remediation as a result of commercial airports, including (Tampa International Airport), using this (Federal Aviation Administration)-mandated chemical in its firefighting methods.”

The lawsuit asks for money from the manufacturers to pay for investigating, fixing and monitoring the “ongoing contamination” of its “surface, surface water, groundwater, soil and sediment.”

After decades of use in everyday materials like nonstick pans and certain cosmetics, medical specialists are trying to determine exactly what harm the chemicals cause to human health. They come from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known widely by the acronym “PFAS.” Research suggests certain compounds can lead to heightened cholesterol as well as thyroid and immune issues.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pushing to set regulations and offer guidance on how to manage the chemicals, saying “aggressively addressing” the problem “is an ongoing and high-priority effort.”

With added awareness has come a burst of litigation. Regional drinking supplier Tampa Bay Water announced a similar lawsuit against companies including 3M and DuPont. The Hillsborough Aviation Authority case does not name those two manufacturers specifically but includes an open-ended list of potential “John Doe” defendants, to be added as lawyers learn more. Among the businesses named in the lawsuit are the Wisconsin-based Ansul Company and Chemguard. Websites for the two entities direct people to the same phone number and spokesperson.

In a statement Tuesday, a Chemguard spokesman said the company “acted appropriately and responsibly at all times” developing foams “to exacting military standards.”

“The U.S. military and civilian firefighters have depended for decades on these foams to extinguish life-threatening fires. They continue to use them safely and reliably for that purpose today. We will vigorously defend this lawsuit,” the statement read.

The lawsuits are all being directed to a federal court in South Carolina. Like similar claims, the latest Hillsborough filing notes that the cost of handling contamination is still uncertain.

“We know enough about what it’s likely to cost based on the experience that other similar facilities are having, and it’s definitely in the millions of dollars potentially,” said Ralph DeMeo, an environmental and land use lawyer on the case. He pointed to the millions of dollars the Florida Legislature agreed upon to support cleanup at the Florida State Fire College this year.

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Fire suppressing foam is a well-known source of “forever chemicals,” and it has been connected to contamination near the Ocala campus.

Local airports used the foam to knock down blazes involving jet fuel and planes. Officials in Pensacola, Melbourne and Sanford have also filed claims, DeMeo said, and he expects more to follow.

“In general wherever the foams have been used you’re finding the presence in the environment,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Tuesday Aug. 18 with a statement from Chemguard.