FAIRBANKS—A new water pollution regulation proposed near the end of the administration of then-Gov. Bill Walker has been put on hold by the acting head of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Acting Commissioner Jason Brune spoke about the state policy on PFAS contamination last month at a breakfast forum of the Resource Development Council at Anchorage’s Dena'ina Center. PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and is an umbrella term for a series of man-made chemicals common in consumer products from nonstick skillets to rain jackets.
PFAS are known as emerging contaminants, because they’ve been found to cause sickness in animals, but their effects on human health aren’t yet well understood.
Brune said the state now doesn’t plan to implement the proposed rules because the federal Environmental Protection Agency has since announced plans for federal drinking-water standards for PFAS.
“We are going to follow the lead of the EPA on it, see what they’re going to do, and make sure we’re all marching to the beat of the same drum, effectively. It is a major issue,” Brune said at the forum.
Brune said at the Resource Development Council meeting that he was first introduced to the subject of PFAS on Dec. 3, his first day of work.
"It does cause human health effects, and we need to stay on top of that. I don't think there's anything more important in my job, probably, than ensuring people's drinking water is protected," he said.
Pam Miller, director of Anchorage-based advocacy organization Alaska Community Action on Toxics, recently learned about the delay in the state PFAS standards.
"I find it unconscionable that they're delaying given that other states are moving rapidly to establish protective, enforceable standards, including drinking water standards,” she said in an interview last week.
Other states including Colorado, New Jersey, New York and Michigan have set their own PFAS standards. New Jersey is in the process of implementing the most stringent drinking water standards in the country. The state’s standards would require drinking water to have one type of PFAS at concentrations of less than 13 parts per trillion.
In the past, Alaska has been proactive with PFAS regulations that go beyond federal requirements. In 2016 the state established cleanup standards for two of the most common types of PFAS, chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS.
The additional Alaska rules that have since been put on hold went up for public comment in October. The new rules would have expanded the types of PFAS that the cleanup standards apply to. The rules would have required PFAS polluters to clean up contamination at locations where the concentration of five types of perfluorinated compounds exceed 70 parts per trillion. The proposed rules also added a sixth type of PFAS, at higher concentrations.
Miller’s organization advocated for PFAS rules much stricter than 70 parts per trillion but supported the general policy of tightening state rules because of the slow pace of federal PFAS regulation. Miller sees the state’s decision to delay its regulations as a reversal from policies under the previous governor. Public comment on the state PFAS regulations closed just before new Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy took office in December.
Before bringing up the PFAS regulation at the Resource Development Council forum, Brune spoke to the industry leaders about Dunleavy’s commitment to reversing government regulations in order to make Alaska a more business-friendly state. Of more than 100 regulations identified for removal or significant modification, nearly half came from the Department of Environmental Conservation, he said.
“I'm kind of happy about that," he added.
Department spokeswoman Laura Achee said in an email last week that the decision on the PFAS rules was not part of the program to encourage business by reducing regulations.
“This is not a regulatory rollback, and is not part of the department’s review of regulations for potential repeal,” she said.
PFAS in Fairbanks
Like in other states, much of the PFAS contamination in Alaska has been found around military installations, airports, industrial sites and firefighter training areas where a PFAS firefighting foam called Aqueous Film Forming Foam has been used.
Many of these sites are located in and around Fairbanks, where water testing around known places of PFAS contamination in recent years has revealed 283 private drinking water wells that had PFAS concentrations above the EPA advisory levels of 70 parts per trillion.
PFAS are water soluble, and can contaminate water far from the source of the pollution by traveling through surface and underground water flow.
Last week, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed two North Pole area lakes to sport fishing because of PFAS concentrations in the lakes and concerns about contaminated fish.
This spring, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the area around Eielson Air Force Base will be one of eight PFAS sites around the U.S. where the concentrations of PFAS in human blood will be studied.
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors