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Town, State Officials Discuss Origin of PFAS Contamination

As the Town of Burlington nears completion of a PFAS filtration system at its Mill Pond water treatment facility, Town Administrator Paul Sagarino, Burlington’s State Rep. Ken Gordon, and representatives of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) met recently to discuss the source of that contamination and potentially find ways to recuperate some money for the town. 

“I believe it’ll be the start of a very long process,” Sagarino said. “It’s probably not something that we’re going to see the results from certainly any time soon, but I do think it makes a lot of sense of us to try to find a responsible party for that and hopefully hold them accountable for some sort of reimbursement for the costs that the town has had to incur to remediate that.”

PFAS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals,” are a family of thousands of man-made compounds that don’t break down on their own, and can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of certain cancers. In 2021, Massachusetts lowered its standard for six PFAS chemicals to 20 parts per trillion, and Burlington subsequently learned its drinking water contained PFAS above that new limit. To address the problem, the town moved quickly to appropriate $15 million to install filters at its Mill Pond water treatment plan. 

Gordon said some contamination may come from Hanscom Field, which is managed by MassPort.

“What happens at Hanscom and many airports is certain materials they use contain a degree of PFAS, and that includes the de-icing materials for planes, the firefighting foam, and to some extent the jet fuel,” he said. “So the issue is that it can get into the Shawsheen River, which flows through Bedford, which has also been dealing with these issues, and into Burlington.” 

The link between PFAS and firefighting foam is clear. A spokesperson for MassPort disputed the connection between PFAS and de-icing fluid.

Studies by the Mass. DEP in 2021 and 2022 identified PFAS in the Shawsheen River, with a pattern of decreasing concentrations with distance from Hanscom, and concluded that the predominant source of the PFAS in the river appears to be Hanscom.

Gordon is attempting to include $1.5 million, to be split between Burlington and Bedford, in the state’s upcoming budget, to partially reimburse the two towns for funds spent on PFAS remediation. 

Burlington can currently pump up to 1 million gallons per day of water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, but gets the majority of its water (an average of 2.5 million gallons per day in the winter) from the Shawsheen River via the Mill Pond Water Treatment Plant. The town is in the final stages of getting more water from the MWRA, and expects its PFAS filters to be operational soon.

“We anticipate the filters to be up and running by the end of March/early April,” said Burlington DPW Business Manager Rachel Leonardo.