Fresh, November 14, 2023: Near Chicago’s Airports, Fears of Groundwater Contamination from Firefighting Foam

November 14, 2023

Fresh is a biweekly newsletter from Circle of Blue that unpacks the biggest international, state, and local policy news stories facing the Great Lakes region today. Sign up for Fresh: A Great Lakes Policy Briefing, straight to your inbox, every other Tuesday.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Fresh Editor

This Week’s Watersheds

  • More than $300 million will be designated in Chicago for the replacement of thousands of lead pipes.
  • Workers at the St. Lawrence Seaway reached a deal with the port’s management group, ending a week-long strike that had halted trade in and out of the Great Lakes.
  • Wetland restoration projects are ongoing in Ohio, where algal blooms have overrun Chippewa Lake, the state’s largest inland glacial lake.
  • At Chicago’s Midway and O’Hare airports, local officials are concerned about groundwater contamination from past use of firefighting foam.

On the shores of Lake Ontario at Westcott Beach State Park, in Henderson, New York, community members are planting beachgrass, a natural flood barrier.

“What we have here is a natural stretch of shoreline in an otherwise much-developed area. If you go down that way, you’ll see everything else is hard-armored with rocks and concrete. And it’s much the same in the other direction. In an effort to avoid hard-armoring our own property here, we are going with a more sustainable approach.” — Mathew Bilz, the natural resource stewardship manager for the Mid-State District of state parks.

College students in New York, working alongside Westcott Beach State Park employees, have led a community effort to plant more than 3,000 bunches of Champlain beachgrass along the shores of Lake Ontario, the Watertown Daily Times reports

Beachgrass serves as a natural barrier, helping protect inland wetlands and dunes from high-water events on the lakeshore, which have occurred more frequently in recent years. The plant also stabilizes sand in high winds, helping to form its own protective sandbar on the border of the freshwater ecosystem. 

The effort was funded by the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative.

Fresh from the Great Lakes News Collaborative

  • MI Healthy Climate Corps program to launch in March 2024 — Michigan Radio
  • Flint water cases doomed by missteps from Dana Nessel’s office, experts say — Bridge Michigan
  • Wisconsin agency’s expanded mission led to record $450 million investment in Milwaukee waterways — Great Lakes Now

The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader. We work together to produce news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work here.

A Legacy of ‘Forever Chemicals’ Found in Groundwater Near Chicago’s Airports

A type of firefighting foam known as AFFF and historically used to combat petroleum fires has been phased out in recent years due to the substance’s concentration of toxic chemicals. 

AFFF has been one focus of the Department of Defense — which, as the result of ongoing, nationwide investigations into the scale of PFAS contamination in groundwater — is estimating the cost of cleanups to total $39 billion. 

This effort will include significant efforts at Chicago’s two airports — O’Hare and Midway — where a legacy of forever chemicals, most notably from firefighting foam, has attracted attention from local officials concerned about the health of the city’s waterways, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.  

For decades, “tens of thousands of gallons” of the foam was stored and used at both airports. It was a regular tool both the military and Chicago Fire Department used during fires and training exercises. 

Because Chicagoland receives its drinking water from Lake Michigan, its contamination isn’t likely. However, the influence of PFAS in groundwater reserves beneath homes and throughout surrounding suburbs is much more likely, causing concern among statewide leaders.

According to the Sun-Times, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul “sued more than two dozen companies for making and selling the foam. It was one of three lawsuits Raoul filed over PFAS contamination, saying the product threatened health and polluted rivers, lakes and other bodies of water.”

And last year, 200 tons of soil contaminated with PFAS was taken from O’Hare Airport and moved to a landfill — a productive step, some say, that nonetheless doesn’t address existing groundwater contamination. 

Community members living near the airports, who are often subject to flooding in basements during heavy rains, now have heightened concerns that their own homes are more contaminated with PFAS than previously thought.

In the News

Lead Out: More than 20 percent of the country’s total number of lead service lines are found in Illinois, including more than 400,000 still serving Chicagoland, WGN 9 news reports. To help reduce lead exposure in water throughout the city, $336 million will be allocated to replacing these lines with ones made from copper, a safer alternative. Homeowners can apply to have their old pipes replaced for free, a service that officials estimate will create some 2,700 new jobs. 

St. Lawrence Deal: $24.74 million in economic activity was disrupted each day during the week-long St. Lawrence Seaway workers’ strike before a deal with the port’s management group was struck, Reuters reports. Close to 150 vessels, many transporting grain and other crops from Great Lakes ports to overseas destinations, were affected during the strike, which lasted from October 22 to October 30. The Unifor union, representing some 360 port workers, secured annual wage increases and a signing bonus.

Looking Ahead

H2Ohio: Urban and agricultural development has shrunk wetland habitat in the greater Cleveland area, Great Lakes Echo reports — a loss that has sparked an explosion of toxic algal growth in bodies of water including Chippewa Lake, the largest glacial lake in Ohio. Three grants totaling $1.5 million from H2Ohio, the statewide water quality initiative, are helping to restore these natural filters and revive Chippewa Lake. The projects include cleanup initiatives, non-native species protection, and water flow redirection. 

Upcoming Events

November 14 — Great Lakes Seminar Series: Valoree Gagnon — learn more and register

December 4 — Great Lakes Seminar Series: How Environmental Justice Law & Policy Has Been Shaping Great Lakes Protection & Restoration — learn more and register

Other News

PFAS in Private Wells: Water tests conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources revealed that PFAS were detected in seven out of every 10 shallow, private wells. Some 450 wells across the state were tested in the survey. Though PFAS were frequently present, 99 percent of contaminated water samples were “below the state health department’s recommended groundwater limits,” Spectrum News 1 reports.

Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwe Reservation: Only a few ancient beds of manoomin — wild rice — remain in Wisconsin, where tribes are urging government officials to heed their traditional knowledge in the face of climate change for the sake of the sacred crop and people alike, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports


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