New Investigative Report on Drinking Water Contamination in Alaska ReleasedPosted and Edited By MARY KAUFFMAN
September 25, 2019
According to the Alaska PFAS Action Coalition, ten Alaska communities have PFAS in their drinking water at levels deemed unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and it is likely that the number of communities with contaminated water will grow as more sampling is conducted throughout the state.
PFAS, a group of unregulated substances linked to adverse health outcomes, including liver and kidney damage, reproductive and developmental harm, immune system impairment, and certain cancers, has been found in groundwater and public drinking water supplies in communities throughout Alaska. An increasing number of states have responded to the latest scientific understanding concerning the adverse health effects of PFAS exposure by establishing health protective regulations more stringent than EPA’s health advisory levels for PFAS in drinking water sources. Meanwhile, the State of Alaska under the Dunleavy Administration has rolled-back protections and site investigations.
Many water sources across the state are contaminated by perfluorinated alkylated substances, commonly known as PFAS chemicals, according to the new report prepared by the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Alaska PFAS Action Coalition, Gustavus PFAS Action Coalition, and Fairbanks W.A.T.E.R. (“Wake Up Alaskans to the Toxic Environmental Reality.”)
PFAS chemicals are contained in fire-fighting foams used on military bases and in airports in Alaska for many years, as well as for other commercial purposes. They are often known as “forever chemicals” because they persist and accumulate in our bodies and in the natural environment. Repeated exposure is known to cause significant health problems, including various types of cancer, endocrine and thyroid disease, liver damage, and pregnancy induced hypertension.
The following Alaska lawmakers released statements on the new report’s findings:
Alaska Sen. Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau) said, “I proudly worked with the Department of Environmental Conservation this year to secure money to find out how far the problem goes. Now it’s time to decide the next steps to protect Alaskans’ health and safe drinking water. The recommendations in this report should kick off some serious conversations that lead to action.”
Alaska Rep. Sara Hannan (D-Juneau) said, “Alaskans impacted by PFAS pollution and those concerned about the long-term impact of this class of toxins in our environment have given us a blueprint of what Alaska needs to do. We need to provide safe water and ensure cleanup of PFAS contaminated sites. We need to stop using PFAS compounds. We need comprehensive monitoring of all public water systems. I hope this report helps spur other lawmakers to this conclusion. I hope this report encourages the administration to join in the multi-state litigation against PFAS manufacturers. We need to take action now."
Alaska Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage), House Resources Committee Co-Chair responded to the report saying, “Alaskans have a right to clean drinking water. Sadly, across the state, from Fairbanks to Gustavus, Alaskans are on bottled water because their drinking water has been contaminated by PFAS. Today’s report tells us we are not doing enough. Most concerning to me is this report follows hearings we held in the Resources Committee where it was discovered the state had eliminated testing for multiple PFAS chemicals. We need a comprehensive plan to address PFAS contamination. I want the impacted Alaskans to know we stand with them in calling for immediate action.”
No PFAS are regulated under EPA’s federal Safe Drinking Water Act (EPA, 2016e). Nor are any PFAS listed as “haz- ardous substances,” under EPA’s Comprehensive Enviromental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund (EPA, 2016d). The lack of definitive action by EPA and consistent, enforceable federal regulations is hindering PFAS investigation and remediation efforts in states, including the State of Alaska, that have decided to wait for further direction from EPA.
The federal response to the PFAS public health crisis has been inadequate and inconsistent. Regulatory measures have not kept pace with the science.
The State of Alaska first promulgated regulatory cleanup levels for PFOS and PFOA in groundwater in 2016, using the same toxicity information EPA used to derive its LHA for PFOS and PFOA, but without the relative source contribution factor.
In August 2018, based on the evolving science on PFAS, the Alaska DEC issued a technical memorandum with action levels and guidance on sampling for a total of six PFAS in soil, groundwater, and drinking water: Perfluorooctane sulfo- nate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluoronon- anoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), pefluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA) and the shorter chain, perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS) (DEC, 2018e). The DEC set action levels for PFAS compounds in groundwa- ter and surface water used as drinking water at 70 ppt for the sum of five PFAS compounds (PFOS + PFOA + PFNA + PFHxS + PFHpA), with a separate action level of 2,000 ppt for PFBS. The technical memo also provided guidance on soil migration to groundwater clean-up levels, as PFAS are highly mobile and transfer from soil to groundwater.
According to DEC’s August 2018 Action Levels: Based on review of available information, DEC con- siders the six PFAS compounds addressed in this memorandum to be hazardous substances under state law. Several of these compounds have been found in groundwater and surface water used as drinking water. The department finds that action levels are necessary to consistently determine where drinking water treatment or alternative drinking water sources are necessary to ensure adequate protection of human health (DEC, 2018e).
The new report states that after newly-elected Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy took office, his administration acted swiftly to weaken the PFAS standards/regulations put in place by the previous Walker administration. According to the report, on February 28, 2019, the administration directed DOT&PF, the agency charged with addressing PFAS contamination at state-managed airports, to investigate PFOS and PFOA only at newly identified sites (DOT&PF & DEC, 2019). Then in April 2019, the Dunleavy Administration announced its decision to rescind the August 2018 Action Levels for six PFAS and apply the EPA’s 70ppt LHA (Lifetime Health Advisory)to the sum of PFOS and PFOA only where groundwater used for drinking is found to be contaminated and to stop testing for PFNA, PFHxS, PFHpA and PFBS. The new guidance states, “any new testing for PFAS will be for PFOS and PFOA only” (DEC, 2019r).
In response to the ongoing PFAS issue, communities joined together to address what they call is a public health crisis, including the Alaska PFAS Action Coalition (APAC), a state-wide a group that includes the Gustavus PFAS Action Coalition, the WATER (Wake Up Alaskans to the Toxic Environmental Reality) group based in Fairbanks, and other affected community members.
Diana DeFazio, Environmental Health Program Coordinator with Alaska Community Action on Toxics, served as the primary author of this report. Timothy Tynan, graduate student intern with Alaska Community Action on Toxics, wrote the health effects section. Tynan is a dual degree master’s student at Emory University in the PA Program at the medical school and the Rollins School of Public Health.
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