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MPCA to probe soil at airport for contamination from firefighting foam

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Flights at Bemidji Regional Airport may see interruptions for a short period this summer as state officials probe soil for contamination from firefighting foam.

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The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced last month it would check groundwater in numerous cities whether firefighting foam affects the cities' water supplies.

"MPCA has notified us they are coming this summer to perform groundwater tests for contaminates to determine if any exist and if they are migrating into city wells," Harold Van Leeuwen, Bemidji Regional Airport executive director, said Wednesday.

"But there is a misconception by MPCA that the city Fire Department does regular training, including the use of foam, at the airport, which is believed to have PFCs," he said.

The MPCA said that firefighting foams contain perflurochemicals -- PFCs -- that may cause long-lasting environmental contamination, including uptake into human bodies.

"Of particular concern is the possibility that PFCs in Class B firefighting foam may be able to travel from a fire training area to a city's municipal or private wells. Sampling will be done in 2009 to investigate that possibility," according to an MPCA fact sheet.

Leeuwen briefed members of the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority about the pending tests, and none could remember any Fire Department training at the airport.

"It was at least 20 years ago that they did here," Leeuwen said. "Now that training is done at Duluth. The Fire Department does not train and the amount of foam is minimal."

He said the foam equipment at the airport is tested annually to met Federal Aviation Administration standards, "but that's only two or three gallons a year."

Leeuwen also said the FAA has directed airports to redo their winter operations rules, based on incidents this winter.

"There were 11 cases of airplanes rolling off runways in the Midwest alone," he said. "The FAA wants rules now for continuous coverage and it mandates runway closures earlier and based on different criteria."

The FAA also wants to change the way runway conditions are reported, he said, and also a complete rewrite of snow plans. All are due to the FAA by the end of April.

"This will increase our hours," he said of work to keep runways clear.

The Airport Authority also cited the need to lobby against a bill which will be part of the 2010 federal budget authorization for the FAA now before Congress.

It provides new rules under Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting provisions followed by all U.S. airports. Union groups are pushing for passage, Leeuwen said, such as the International Fire Fighters Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization.

"The possible impact, if not modified or rejected, is a tripling of firefighting manpower requirement because of an entry requirement," he said.

Currently, one firefighter and on fire truck are on standby for each commercial flight landing at Bemidji Regional Airport, he said. The new rules, if adopted, would demand three firefighters and a doubling of heavy equipment to battle an aircraft fire.

One of the firefighters would gain entry into the plane for firefighting, which Leeuwen said was a risky task, given the plane is on fire, the plane's aisles are narrow and people are trying to disembark.

"The possible cost to the airport is more than a 400 percent increase to more than $450,000 a year just for firefighters, not including additional equipment," he said.

The airport pays the city of Bemidji $90,000 a year now for the standby fire service, he said.

Minnesota regional airport managers label the issue as their top concern when they next meet with U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he said.

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