The House Resources Committee heard differing messages in presentations from the new Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune and Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Bryce Ward on Friday on the dangers of PFAS groundwater contamination.
Controversy has surrounded a recent state decision, which Brune defended Friday, to stop testing for four of the six PFAS related toxics the state previously studied.
PFAS, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a category of man-made chemicals that repel water and grease and are found in products such as nonstick pans and raincoats. Much of the contamination in Alaska is caused by firefighting foams used at airports and fire training sites. PFAS are known as emerging contaminants, chemicals known to cause sickness in animals, but their exact health effects on humans aren’t yet well understood.
In the Fairbanks area, PFAS levels above state pollution standards have been found to contaminate 283 private drinking water wells.
A decision announced in March rejected draft regulations for when a polluter would have to clean up the same four chemicals. But the state went further than that last month by reversing a testing policy already in practice within the state. In an April 9 memo, the state DEC described the policy as an effort to align Alaska with pending federal standards, but ultimately what the new policy allows the state to restrict toxics testing to only two of the most heavily studied types of these chemicals: PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).
Brune backed this decision stating that “following the lead of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was incredibly important.”
“We feel that by focusing on PFOS and PFOA, the two contaminants that the most is known about and the ones that the EPA is choosing to lead their efforts on, is the best way to ensure that we’re making the right approach going forward,” Brune told the committee Friday.
The DEC’s stance on this issue brought about hefty questioning from members of the House committee who felt it was unsafe to lapse in testing four of the previously tested six chemical compounds. Anchorage Democrat and House Sources Committee Chair Geran Tarr said that perhaps following the EPA’s lead might not be the most efficient or responsible choice.
“We have every reason to know that the EPA will be slow to take action. We know that it’s been highly politicized under this current administration,” Tarr said, noting lobby efforts on the part of chemical companies. “And it’s just completely unacceptable in my mind that you would know all of that and then just say it’s acceptable for us to defer to the EPA when we know we have communities on bottled water right now because of the groundwater contamination.”
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz raised concerns as well.
“I’m not a scientist by nature but what I have been learning is that across the board in all of these chemicals, they’re all associated with increased health risks that are pretty significant and long lasting,” Spohnholz said. “So I’m not sure why we wouldn’t just take a more cautious approach.”
Brune responded that the state DEC felt the need to sit somewhere between taking a fully cautious approach and not urging caution at all.
“There’s the precautionary principle that says don’t use anything until you’ve proven that it’s OK and then there’s the keyhole principle which says until you know it’s bad for you, keep on using it,” Brune said. “Somewhere in between those two is when policy comes into play.”
Brune’s presentation was followed by Ward, who pushed a different message urging increased action on the groundwater contamination his borough suffers excess amounts of.
“The Fairbanks North Star Borough currently has four contaminated sites over the urbanized area which stretches about 30 miles,” Ward said. “PFC compounds remain in the human body for years after exposure and in the environment for even longer.”
Fairbanks city government joined 75 other cities across the country in filing a lawsuit last month against two companies whose products polluted groundwater around the city’s fire training center.
The suit seeks at least $4.3 million from manufacturers to recoup costs the city has spent cleaning up the site and providing clean drinking water to neighbors whose water had high levels of contaminants known as PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
Ward noted the importance of DEC’s increased attention to the matter.
“DEC is needed and relied upon by local governments and the community to set standards and give guidance for clean up measures which include establishing human health advisory or clean-up levels for ground water contamination,” Ward said. “The communities across the state rely on the DEC to protect state resources and the population.”
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.