NIRAS cleans polluted groundwater below Oslo airport

The cleaning plant under construction at Gardermoen

Published: 30-01-2015

The poisonous chemical PFOS poses an increasing threat towards groundwater. Experience from a project at Gardermoen airport could lead to NIRAS taking the lead when it comes to cleaning up PFOS

NIRAS has cleaned part of Norway’s largest groundwater reservoir, removing the dangerous perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and containing further contamination.

The reservoir is located directly beneath Gardermoen, the Olso airport, where a hangar in 2010 was filled with fire fighting foam containing PFOS, because of an error in the fire extinguishing system.

A foot in the Norwegian door

The job was perfect for NIRAS, since NIRAS had just bought the majority in Norwegian Promitek, a company specialising in environmental tasks, and thereby acquired Svein and Eivind Bøe. Eivind Bøe is a trained toxicologist, and both Svein and Eivind have worked at Gardermoen before. When they heard about this new cleaning task, they saw an opportunity to take over a niche area with relative ease, since there is only very few facilities worldwide for cleaning PFOS in groundwater.

‘PFOS is one of the most significant environmental toxins in Norway. This project was one of the first of its kind in Norway, and NIRAS Norwegian/Promitek wish to be the foremost PFOS related problem solvers,’ says Eivind Bøe.

He was in Denmark to talk about the project at the NIRAS Soil Contamination Day, where 120 soil and groundwater pollution technicians were gathered in Odense.

The treatment installation, which is currently cleaning the groundwater at Gardermoen, is based on an old principle: Pump and treat by filtrating the water through a number of sand and active carbon filters.

‘It is a surprisingly simple process. It is remarkable that no one has thought about it before. NIRAS Norwegian/Promitek are one of the first to build and employ an installation such as this, which results in a lot of interest for the project, and very little competition,’ says Torsten Bliksted, team and project manager for NIRAS, and project coordinator for the NIRAS/Promitek project.

In Norway especially, steps are being taken to ensure that larger institutions, such as the military and airports, clean up after themselves when they use PFOS. In this, NIRAS and Promitek have been early movers.

‘We have had a lot of people visit to learn about the cleaning installation. We have even had an entire day dedicated, where representatives from the armed forces of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were shown around,’ says NIRAS’ chief water supply consultant, Henrik Schmidt, who was in charge of designing the cleaning installation for Gardermoen.

‘It has raised awareness for the project in professional circles. Those working with groundwater pollution in Norway know about the installation and know who supplied it,’ adds Eivind Bøe.

New dangerous toxins

The potential in this area is vast for NIRAS, since PFOS and other PFOS like substances have been used extensively, and is still used in new varieties. It is also used in Denmark, where the Environmental Protection Agency has begun to wise up to the dangers associated with it.

‘In the last couple of years there has been an increased awareness about PFOS and PFOS like substances because the substances can cause a number of toxins to appear, as well as cause hormonal disruption. PFOS is receiving a lot of focus, particularly because of its carcinogenic potential,’ explains specialist Jaqueline Anne Falkenberg, ph.d in pharmaceutical chemicals, who works for NIRAS’ environmental department.

PFOS and several related substances have been completely or partially banned in Europe. As a result, the task of cleaning up PFOS will one day be complete, at least in our part of the world. It will, however, be a long time before we get to that point – to this day we are still cleaning soil and water for chemicals which were banned back in the Eighties – and before the task is complete, we will most likely discover additional harmful chemicals like PFOS, which will also need to be cleaned. So far the Danish environmental protection agency has begun examinations as to the extent of contamination from 9 select Long-Chain Perfluorinated Chemicals, including PFOS.

NIRAS is working to quantify the contamination in Denmark, focusing on potential danger zones such as fire drill sites and air force bases, where practice has been conducted in extinguishing oil fires with firefighting foam containing PFOS.

Facts: PFOS

  • stands for perfluorooctane sulfonate
  • is a environmentally dangerous substance and is a persistent pollutant. Meaning that it is dangerous for humans, animals and nature alike. And that it takes a very long time to decompose on its own.
  • is classified as a POP-substance by the UN, meaning it is a Persistent Organic Pollutant.
  • is part of a large family of similar chemicals, i.e. other synthetic Fluorosurfactants substances. All variants are used in or on materials to gain a water or fat repellent effect. All in all, thousands of variants exist and we are far from identifying all the dangerous ones.
  • Awareness of it has increased over the last few years, because it is a bioaccumulative substance (accumulates in single animals and in the entire food chain) and therefore is to be found in humans, where it can cause hormonal defects and cancer.
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