FAIRBANKS — At least four dozen interested residents gathered Tuesday night for an open house on groundwater contamination in and around Fairbanks International Airport. Dozens of representatives from state agencies and private industries were on hand to answer questions at La Quinta Inn & Suites.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance contamination — the consequence of using certain firefighting foams at the airport for more than three decades — was discovered at the airport last October.
As of Tuesday, 61 wells from 58 adjacent residential properties and business were found to have unhealthy levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often called PFAS.
Contamination from PFAS has been found in three separate Fairbanks North Star Borough communities, and all three cases can be traced to the use of aqueous film forming foam.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a health-advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (about three drops in an Olympic-size pool) for PFAS, but officials from Fairbanks International Airport are rounding up any wells testing at 65 parts per trillion or higher.
Properties testing above the limit will be hooked up to Golden Heart Utilities free of charge. Wells found to have 35-65 parts per trillion will be monitored quarterly.
The airport’s assistant manager, Angie Spear, explained the role of multiple entities moving forward. Environmental consultants Shannon & Wilson are responsible for well testing, R&M Consultants have been hired to map the pollution’s plume and PDC Engineers are designing the infrastructure to hook up affected properties to GHU.
Because the airport is a state-run agency, Alaska’s Division of Risk Management is responsible for handling all claims by property owners, including getting hooked up to municipal water.
The majority of contaminated wells are in the Dale Road area, on the west side of the Chena River.
“We just received our first exceedance across the river,” Spear said.
Even though Hal Herber’s well tested around 2 parts per trillion, far below the health-advisory level, he expressed dismay at the pollution. “My kids, my grandkids, my daughter, they don’t want to be a part of it. They don’t want to come over,” he said.
Herber, who has lived directly off Dale Road for 30 years and has tenants in the area, said his biggest worry is the uncertainty. “What about tomorrow? Is it going to be more contaminated?” he asked.
Herber was one of only a few people who asked questions in a group format, the majority choosing to speak one-on-one with representatives.
According to Sam Carlson, a design engineer with PDC Engineers, a significant portion of affected properties have existing access to GHU water mains. He expects an additional 1.5 miles of water mains and two miles of service lines will need to be installed this summer, starting around mid-June.
Residents will likely have to pay for the water. Circulating pumps are also required to hook up to GHU, and the electric cost is between $15-30 per month, depending on the length of pipes.
Carlson said it’s too early to determine how the affected property on the opposite side of the Chena River will be dealt with.
Understanding how the contamination plume interacts with the Chena River, and subsequently the Tanana River, is a major unknown that R&M Consultants want to better grasp this summer. Hypotheses include contaminated water running the same direction as the river, discharging into the river or crossing underneath the river.
The firm will investigate the plume size, horizontal and vertical, as soon as groundwater thaws this summer. A report will hopefully be released by the end of the year, according to Kristi McLean, Environmental Services Group Manager at R&M Consultants.
“It will present our best idea of what’s happening,” McLean said of the complex plume.
Little is known about PFAS, so little that the EPA has labeled it an “emerging contaminant.” The chemicals are also common in carpet, clothing, furniture and nonstick cookware. The EPA reports that PFAS are incredibly persistent in the environment because the carbon and fluorine atoms are extremely well bonded.
The airport has been providing water to people with contaminated wells or wells with suspected contamination. Residents or businesses in the sampling area can call 479-0380 to set up an alternate water source. For water before scheduled deliveries call the Airport Communications Center at 474-2530 to arrange a pickup at the Airport Response Center, 5195 Brumbaugh Blvd.
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.