News-Miner opinion: Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl. That’s a mouthful of letters about a chemical that you don’t want in your mouth.
These man-made chemicals and their related compounds, collectively known as PFAS, have been around for decades. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation notes on its website the versatility of the chemicals, highlighting its usefulness as a firefighting foam and its use in consumer products “such as carpet treatments, non-stick cookware, water-resistant fabrics, food packaging materials and personal care products.”
More and more, however, Alaskans and others across the nation are learning these chemicals could pose a health risk to humans by migrating into groundwater and, from there, into drinking water.
Some research, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has shown that PFAS exposure can affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and older children; lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, affect the immune system and increase the risk of cancer, for example. Not all of the research has shown that, however, the CDC notes.
We just don’t know the impact yet, but Congress is paying attention and is starting to act before it’s too late. And that’s good.
The Fairbanks region has several areas contaminated with PFAS: Polaris Lake on Eielson Air Force Base, Kimberly Lake in North Pole, the city of Fairbanks fire training center and Fairbanks International Airport.
Outside of our area, chemicals in the PFAS family have been found over acceptable levels in the groundwater at airports in Gustavus and Yakutat. And earlier this year the Bristol Bay Times reported that the DEC found the level of PFAS at a popular well at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church to be more than double the maximum allowable level.
Congress, often a maligned institution, is doing something about the problem:
• Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a co-sponsor of the PFAS Action Act, which would require the Environmental Protection Agency to list the PFAS family as hazardous substances that qualify for federal cleanup aid.
• Sen. Murkowski has also introduced the Protecting Military Firefighters from PFAS Act, which has been added to the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which is under consideration in the Senate.
• Both Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan supported a bipartisan amendment that would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to take a number of actions to address PFAS contamination.
• A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act would require the military to discontinue use of the firefighting foam containing PFAS by 2023 and to comply with state cleanup standards.
• PFAS measures have also been introduced in the House, which has also held committee hearings on the subject.
Actions in Congress would force changes in Alaska. The Department of Environmental Conservation last year set standards for six PFAS compounds, but the administration of new Gov. Mike Dunleavy in April rolled that back to just two of the compounds. The rationale was that the state wanted to be aligned with the EPA.
If Congress forces the EPA to get tough on PFAS, Alaska will follow along, DEC Commission Jason Brune told the Daily News-Miner this week.
But that begs the question: Why does Alaska have to wait for the EPA to have tougher standards? Alaska had them briefly before they were slackened this year.
Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia, one of the authors of the bipartisan bill requiring more action from the EPA, spoke strongly about PFAS contamination at a recent hearing. Two communities in her state have PFAS contamination.
“It is regrettable to me that the EPA has been dragging its feet on this issue to the extent that Congress is compelled to act,” she said, “but ensuring the public’s faith in their drinking water is vitally important.”
And, she added, “There still remains much to be done.”
Her statement should have the backing of all members of Congress, the president and, in Alaska, the administration of Gov. Dunleavy.