Editors note: Many of the people mentioned in this article have long since retired or passed on. It is difficult to overstate their commitment to the safety of our town, and the editor wishes to make clear that everyone involved had the best of intentions for Hopkinton and their fellow citizens. Undoubtedly their training saved countless lives. This is a story where modern science has illuminated facts that were simply unknowable at the time.
On March 28, HopNews published a story about the sources of PFAS that may have contaminated Fruit Street well #6. One of the suspects identified was the use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), a fire suppressant used to extinguish flammable liquid fires such as fuel fires. AFFF are synthetic PFAS-containing foams designed for flammable liquid fires, also called Class B fires. The PFAS serve as surfactants that spread the foam to cool and suppress the fire. While they are extremely effective, they are also a major source of PFAS pollution. Subsequent to the discovery of the long-term health effects of PFAS, many fire departments, including Hopkinton, switched to non-toxic solutions.
In the article, HopNews addressed speculation from Mass DEP officials that at some point a vehicle fire on the nearby interstate forced fire crews to respond using AFFF, and that PFAS may have reached the groundwater that way.
When asked about this, retired Hopkinton Fire Chief Ken Clark recalled hearing about a similar incident in the late 1960’s. While traveling northbound, a propane truck overturned beneath the Fruit Street bridge on I-495, causing a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion, or BLEVE. The wreckage of the vehicle was extreme and the driver was killed. Fire crews from multiple departments responded to extinguish the blaze using AFFF.
Longtime resident Jim Pyne, who was a call firefighter and the son of former fire chief Joseph Pyne, confirmed the story. “My brother Joe was on the Fruit Street bridge when that truck overturned,” he said. “He saw a wisp of smoke rising and stopped his car to look over and he quickly realized the truck was on fire. He got out of there in a hurry, and it’s a good thing, because the truck exploded right after.”
While it’s true that responding units likely used AFFF to extinguish the blaze, given the level of contamination in the Fruit Street well and other wells nearby, it is unlikely that this single incident is responsible for the contamination.
Days after publishing the article, HopNews received a letter from a former firefighter in Southborough.
“Due to fear of retribution, please DO NOT use my name or publish my email address. Back in the late 1970’s, I was a call firefighter in Southborough. We did flammable liquids and gas firefighting training in a gravel pit on Fruit Street. There were several props there including a large cylindrical tank that we practiced on using water and foam. I’m not sure who built the training area, but it is long gone now. Arthur Stewart, who was the Hopkinton Fire Chief back then is long gone too. If they want to find PFAS in the Fruit Street area, they should be drilling there.”
Chief Arthur Stewart and the Gas School
In 1947, Arthur Stewart, an employee at Pyne Sand and Gravel, was appointed to the fire department by Chief Joseph Pyne. In sad twist of fate, Chief Pyne was injured in a fire in his own home in 1964 and died two months later.
Stewart succeeded Pyne as Hopkinton’s first full-time fire chief. He was widely respected for his exceptional firefighting ability and he felt strongly that recurrent training was key to the success of the department. A leading mind in fire safety, Stewart was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Fire Fighting Academy, which formed in 1971.
Stewart was particularly concerned with his firefighters’ ability to respond to Class B fires, a problem that was brought into focus by the construction of a liquid natural gas plant on Wilson street between 1967 – 1975 by the Worcester Gas and Light Company (now NSTAR / Eversource).
Between 1979 and 1985, the Academy used 2 acres of the Pyne Sand and Gravel pit as a training ground for “gas school”. At the time, new firefighters enrolled in a 7-week program, and as part of the training they were taught how to handle fires with liquid natural gas, propane and other highly flammable substances.
The Academy constructed several props at the gravel pit to aid firefighters in responding to unusual calls, one of which was a large cylinder they would fill with propane, jet fuel and liquid natural gas. Once ignited, teams of firefighters would approach, dousing the cylinder with AFFF, High Expansion Foam (which does not contain surfactant and is therefore low in toxicity) and other chemical retardants.
Retired Hopkinton firefighter Bill Lukey recounted the procedure. “Basically we would adjust our hose stream to form a fog pattern with the foam. As we approached the cylinder we would concentrate the hose and direct the fire away from other sources of ignition, and when we got close enough we’d cut the gas line.”
While Hopkinton firefighters trained at the Pyne gravel pit only twice per year, departments from all over the Northeast used the facility regularly. Fire teams from Logan Airport and from as far as New York City are known to have used the field. Crews would use a nearby well for water and would bring AFFF in by the barrel. Although it was spartan compared to the Academy today, it was a state-of-the-art facility for its time. It was accompanied by a mobile tractor-trailer unit that the Academy used as a classroom.
The Fire Academy built a new training facility in Stow in the 1980’s. Pyne Sand and Gravel sold the land to the town in 2003 and it became known as the Fruit Street complex.
“None of us knew about PFAS back then,” said Clark. “We wouldn’t have used AFFF had we known.”
The map above illustrates the approximate flow of water through the aquifer that sits below the Fruit Street complex. This model is derived from a study that DPW commissioned prior to constructing the wastewater treatment plant in the early 2000’s. Based on this data it is likely that the copious amounts of AFFF used during the operation of the gas school resulted in the contamination of Well #6 and the wells in use at Hopkinton Country Club and Highland Park. It also explains why nearby Fruit Street wells #1 and #2 are not contaminated; the water flows away from them.
Portsmouth, and where we go from here
In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the retired Pease Air Force Base is now a designated superfund site. The CDC advisory reads: “PFAS containing aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) may have gotten into public and private wells during firefighting and firefighting training on the former Pease Air Force Base.” A report from the National Guard states “The results of the preliminary analysis indicated that AFFF containing PFAS was used and stored at the former Pease AFB and was routinely used during training exercises and to extinguish petroleum fires. In addition, AFFF was inadvertently released on several occasions at several locations.”
Given that the harmful effects of AFFF are widely known, a logical next step would be to conduct soil testing at Fruit Street to determine the level of contamination. Unfortunately it is not that simple. There is no EPA approved method for testing solid samples for PFAS. Currently, the EPA has only approved tests for liquids, though a draft method for solids is in review.
“You can, however, test the leachate,” said Lindsey Pollard, Research Associate at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell. “This involves putting the solid sample in water for a while and then testing the water for PFAS. It will give you an indication but it’s not entirely accurate yet.”
Prior to publishing, HopNews shared this story with Town Manager Norman Khumalo for comment. In a written statement, Khumalo responded that “it has been suggested by some that Massachusetts Firefighting Academy training operations in Hopkinton in the 1970s and 80s may have contributed to the contamination and that training centered around fighting natural gas-fueled fires may have used a product called Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which is known to contain PFAS. The Town is presently without knowledge to judge the truth or accuracy of these suggestions. When the Town was permitting well #6 in 2003 an engineer hired by the Town determined that ‘the primary known source of potential contamination is the salt that was stored and used at the former sand and gravel operation’ nearby and that ‘no other potential sources of contamination were identified.'”
“The Town of Hopkinton is focused on removing PFAS from our public water supply,” wrote DPW Director John Westerling. “State and federal resources nationwide are separately focused on determining causes of contamination. Our focus is on getting it out of our water supply.”