The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Alaska Department of Transportation, in partnership with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, have been working on the identification of and response to sites contaminated with PFAS chemicals. We are very pleased that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently announced a PFAS Action Plan, which includes a commitment by EPA to make a regulatory determination within the year about whether to establish a maximum contamination level for drinking water for the PFAS chemicals PFOA and PFOS
PFAS are chemicals that have been used since the 1950s in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. A PFAS-based product known as aqueous film forming foam puts out petroleum and chemical fires far more safely and effectively than water, leading the Federal Aviation Administration to require its use for fires and regular drills at airports across the country, including 23 state-owned airports in Alaska. Regular equipment testing is required and DOT will use this product for responding to real fires, but foam will not be discharged into the environment unless necessary to save lives during an actual aircraft emergency.
Recent studies have shown that PFAS may adversely impact human health, but the exact effects and at what levels of exposure are not fully known. This makes it difficult when PFAS is found in soil, groundwater or drinking water wells. Is any contamination harmful or is there a level at which we should be concerned and take action? For other regulated drinking water contaminants, the EPA has set maximum contamination levels, but it has not done so for PFAS. Rather than wait, DEC and DOT pressed forward to protect the health of Alaskans. The agencies undertook a risk-based review of the state owned airports in Alaska, identifying sites where runoff of the foam could have impacted nearby drinking water wells. To date, well-users in Fairbanks, North Pole, King Salmon, Dillingham and Gustavus have been provided with alternative drinking water based on test results.
States have responded in different ways to the PFAS issue, with most choosing to do nothing. Some, including Alaska in 2016, took regulatory action to set cleanup levels. In August 2018, DEC added three additional PFAS compounds in a technical memo to create a DEC action level and began promulgating new regulations based on this change. During the public comment period for the draft regulations, DEC received comments across the spectrum, including comments strongly urging the department to leave the 2016 regulations in place and postpone setting revised cleanup levels until better toxicity data and EPA standards are available.
EPA’s recent announcement that it would take the lead on this important issue is welcomed. It will bring much-needed consistency as a national strategy for addressing the health risks of PFAS contamination is developed. The EPA will use its team of scientists, toxicologists and other experts to study PFAS when setting a maximum contamination level. These experts will take into account the contribution from other exposures such as those from stain-resistant carpeting, waterproof outwear and food wrappers, and nonstick cookware. When a maximum contamination level is set by the EPA, states, including Alaska, would be required to adopt it.
Given EPA’s forthcoming efforts, DEC has placed its draft regulations on hold. We will continue to voluntarily test according to the EPA’s lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion of PFOS and PFOA when addressing contaminated sites, as these are the two most-studied PFAS compounds. DEC and DOT will be proactive and continue to sample water in other communities near state-owned airports to determine whether drinking water has been impacted and to provide alternative drinking water as a precaution. DEC will continue to require other responsible parties to test for PFAS and provide alternative drinking water as a precaution as well.
We will actively participate in EPA’s process and closely monitor future toxicology and epidemiology studies on PFAS. In the meantime, both agencies have posted information about PFAS on our respective department websites. We encourage those who have questions regarding PFAS and the state’s response to visit bit.ly/2Imh01V and bit.ly/2KD0D3i.
Jason Brune is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. John MacKinnon is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.