Firefighters pumped more than 135,000 litres of chemical-laced foam onto training fires at Hamilton’s airport, says a retired Transport Canada trainer.
The city is studying the extent of pollution at an old training site contaminated with perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), a toxic chemical once used in firefighting foam.
But no one seems to know how much PFOS-laden foam was used at John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport.
The city and airport operator Tradeport say those records are with Transport Canada, which owned the airport until 1996 and ran a regional fire training program. The federal department says it doesn’t have the information, and notes the airport was managed by the Region of Hamilton-Wentworth at the time.
Barry Spear, a fire training officer for Transport Canada from 1990 until 1994, thinks the records were lost or trashed during the airport transfer from federal to municipal owners.
But Spear has tried to do the math from memory.
“We put out two or even three major fires with a truckload (of foam), and we’d probably fill up the truck a couple of times a day during training,” said Spear, who was also in charge of buying foam for regional training. “Say, an average of 500 litres in a day?”
Spear said the “regional” training program actually served fire forces from across the province, including trainees from as far north as Timmins and Moosonee. Training took six weeks a year, he said, meaning at least 15,000 litres of foam were used annually. That’s 135,000 litres between 1985 and 1994, enough to fill four big tanker trucks.
By comparison, federal consultants investigating a PFOS-polluted training site in B.C. figured 2,700 litres of foam were sprayed each year. They estimated that translates into 500 litres of PFOS and its chemical cousins in the ground.
The provincial Ministry of the Environment is interested in “any information that helps us understand the nature of the contamination,” said district manager Geoffrey Knapper.
But, he added, soil test results due in July are the “most important tools” in determining what kind of cleanup is needed.
Glanbrook Councillor Brenda Johnson said the city wants Spear’s information, if it can be verified.
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” she said.
It’s still unclear, for example, how long the PFOS-laden brand of foam was used at Hamilton’s airport. A city report says the airport switched to fire foam without PFOS in 1990. The airport website says no foam with the chemical was used after 1999.
Spear doesn’t know what ingredients were in the foam he bought. But he’s betting the foam pictured in a 1971 Spectator photo of airport fire training was PFOS-free, arguing most airports used a protein-based foam before 1980.
“That was the stuff I worried about,” he said with a laugh. “We called it chicken guts … it was just awful.”
Spear retired from the firefighting scene seven years ago and now lives near Peterborough, but he said he’s following the Hamilton airport study.
The city and Transport Canada are arguing over responsibility for the airport cleanup, which could cost up to $3 million. Ontario’s environment ministry has also said it expects both levels of government to contribute to a downstream health assessment.
If future health studies warrant human blood tests, Spear is ready to volunteer.
“I was up to my ears in the stuff for years,” he said.