Barnstable County is working with federal and state environmental protection agencies to clean up a site contaminated by a history of use of firefighting foam.
Massachusetts, meanwhile, has proposed tightening regulations on those contaminants.
Both the county and the Town of Barnstable have already spent millions to address the problem caused by the chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, at a fire training academy in Hyannis.
No solution is in sight, Barnstable County Administrator Jack Yunits Jr. said.
Mr. Yunits told the county commissioners last month that regulators understand that the county has financial limits after the county met with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to discuss the cleanup.
“To push us over that limit, financially, would mean to bankrupt the county, and to bankrupt the county would mean the problem never gets solved,” he said at the June 26 meeting of the county commissioners.
In April, the DEP proposed tightening regulations on the entire class of chemicals known as PFAS—which includes PFOA and PFOS.
The county has previously acted on a health advisory from the EPA that set a threshold for safe levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion.
The proposed regulations by the DEP would lower that threshold, not just in drinking water but in groundwater, to 20 parts per trillion.
“The proposed draft cleanup site rules are designed to be protective of public health and are more protective than current federal guidelines,” said Joseph Ferson, a spokesman from the DEP, in an email.
PFOA and PFOS have been shown to cause developmental effects in fetuses and breastfed infants and may be associated with an increased risk of cancer, according to the DEP website.
The county uses filters on wells near the Hyannis contamination site to ensure that their drinking water is free from PFOA and PFOS contamination.
A “pump and treat” system that recovers and treats approximately 50,000 gallons of groundwater per day is also used to help contain and treat the contamination.
The county is “not really seeing a perceptible drop right now” despite the pump and treat system, according to Mr. Yunits.
At the request of the DEP, Barnstable County is expected to double its pump and treat efforts in the coming months.
The county is also considering “encapsulating” the Hyannis contamination site with cement to contain runoff, according to County Commissioner Ronald R. Beaty Jr.
Mr. Beaty said that he has “no idea what the end price tag is going to be” for the cleanup.
Mr. Yunits said that “we don’t have a viable solution for where the money is going to come from” but that any solution “has to be feasible, which means it has to be affordable.”
The county is looking into pursuing federal funding for the cleanup and has also filed a civil action against the manufacturers of the contaminant-containing firefighting foam, although the multidistrict litigation—which includes lawsuits filed against the manufacturers by dozens of entities from several other states—is unlikely to conclude anytime soon.
Options such as incinerating, excavating, or breaking down the contaminants with other chemicals were dismissed by the county and environmental agencies as impractical.
Incinerating the PFOA and PFOS at the Hyannis Fire Academy site would require using extremely high temperatures, since the chemicals were created to be fireproof.
Excavation is not possible since landfills will not take the contaminated soil. Using other chemicals to break down the PFOA and PFOS would likely lead to adding different contaminants to the soil.
Although there seem to be no immediate solutions for cleanup of the contaminants at the fire training academy in Hyannis, Mr. Yunits said, “Barnstable has been a huge leader on this.”
Across the United States, counties and states have become aware of PSOA and PFOS contamination in soil and water systems.
At least 14 PSOA and PFOS contamination sites have been identified in Massachusetts, four of them on Cape Cod.