The Michigan Attorney General’s office is suing the Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority over PFAS pollution that has migrated from the Kent County airport into some nearby residential drinking water wells.
The airport authority is liable for releases of polyfluoroalkyl substances, which were in firefighting foams used at the airport, said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel as she announced the lawsuit Monday. PFAS compounds have been found in drinking water wells in nearby Cascade Township homes, streams and groundwater downstream of the airport.
The airport authority and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy have been in dispute over the pollution and airport’s liability since 2020. The parties were scheduled to meet to negotiate a settlement agreement at the end of August.
“The Airport Authority has had ample opportunity, over several years now, to step up and do the right thing,” said Nessel in a press release. “But as they’ve shown a refusal to accept responsibility for their actions or meaningfully attempt to clean up the messes they have made, we must compel them to act responsibly.”
The case was filed Monday in Kent County’s 17th Judicial Circuit Court. The state is seeking relief for past and future remediation and monitoring costs, damages for harms to the environment and civil fines. 
Airport officials said they are disappointed in the attorney general’s decision to pursue a lawsuit, said Casey Ries, the airport’s engineering and planning director. Ries said the airport has shown an unwavering, multi-year commitment to environmental stewardship and noted that the federal government mandated the use of fire-fighting foam containing PFAS.
Ries noted that the airport has collaborated with other agencies and local governments to extend public drinking water into Cascade Charter Township, test new PFAS stabilization methods, and more.
“It’s unfortunate discussions with the AG’s office have come to an impasse despite years of environmental study and progress,” said Ries in a statement. “The Airport will continue to follow its ‘True North’ in advancing environmental stewardship on behalf of the West Michigan community and the aviation industry, while providing a world-class travel experience.”
Airport leaders and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy have been in dispute over the pollution since 2020, when EGLE officials sent a letter to airport engineering and planning director Casey Ries, stating the airport is responsible for addressing the contamination by understanding the extent of the pollution, containing it and notifying neighbors if it migrated off-site.
The full extent of the PFAS pollution related to the airport remains unknown, Nessel’s team said Monday.
The Cascade Township property has been an airport since the 1960s. Firefighting training activities took place at the property; training involved using a foam that was laden with PFAS. Stormwater from the training area is collected, treated and then discharged into the Thornapple River.
PFAS issues at the airport were discovered in 2018, according to an EGLE site history page. By 2020, the department said PFOS and PFOA ― perfluorooctane sulfonic acid perfluorooctanoic acid, which are part of PFAS ― were in shallow groundwater at 870 and 103 parts per trillion, and surface soils at levels between .639 and 4,100 micrograms per kilogram.
“The concentrations of PFOS and PFOA in groundwater exceed the criteria for unrestricted residential use, and the concentrations of PFOS in surficial soils exceed the groundwater-surface water interface protection criteria of 0.24 ug/kg,” the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy wrote in a May 2020 letter. “The presence of PFOS and PFOA in surficial soils and groundwater indicate that the Property is the source of environmental contamination.”
The contamination migrated to residential wells downstream of the airport, EGLE told the company in October, 2020. A state investigation showed 39 residential drinking water wells contained PFOA or PFOS at levels that exceeded drinking water criteria. EGLE ordered the airport to contain or remove the contamination, provide temporary sources of water to those residents and conduct further investigation.
Since then, EGLE has issued the airport at least five violation notices.
In July, state environmental officials said the airport continued to release PFOS through its wastewater discharges between July 2019 and May 2023, was discharging illegal levels of other pollutants including dissolved oxygen and failed to submit adequate discharge monitoring reports.
On July 28, airport engineering and planning director Ries responded with a letter to EGLE officials that touted the operation of a “natural treatment system” that went online in 2015 and treats the property’s stormwater. The system requires a “ramp-up period heading into the de-icing season” and can’t adjust to rapidly changing conditions, “which is its only drawback,” he said.
“We look forward to continuing this work and appreciate your guidance on reasonable, legally-permissible next steps if the Airport’s current efforts are in any way deemed insufficient,” he said. “Absent currently available solutions to these challenges, the Airport will continue on its current path of research, on-site management, and further investigation as feasible and appropriate response actions to address these current concerns from historic activities.”
Nessel accused airport officials of refusing to take responsibility for the pollution and for failing to take the necessary steps to address it. In the complaint, state attorneys said the airport continues to discharge PFAS substances at levels that violate water quality standards.
EGLE Director Phil Roos said he hopes the lawsuit will motivate the airport to address the PFAS contamination.
“We believe the Gerald Ford International Airport Authority used PFAS-containing foam for decades,” said Phil Roos, Director of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. “These PFAS compounds have been detected in excess of the state’s standards both on and off the airport property and where they are negatively impacting the nearby drinking water wells and natural resources.”