Wastewater plant compost

Compost is loaded and stockpiled beside the Golden Heart Utilities Wastewater Treatment Plant in this 2010 file photo. The utility has suspended sales of the compost due to concerns about possible PFAS contamination. Eric Engman/News-Miner

As efforts to understand and mitigate the growing PFAS contamination crisis continue on the state and local level, the chemical compounds contaminating water sources across the country are gaining notice on the national level as well. 

PFAS, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a category of human-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 well understood.

In the Fairbanks area, PFAS levels above state pollution standards have been found to contaminate at least 283 private drinking water wells and the city of Fairbanks and North Pole as well as the Fairbanks North Star Borough have joined dozens of other cities and towns suing the manufacturers of a firefighting foam containing a toxic chemical that has contaminated lakes and groundwater.

In other areas of the state, residents have begun testing blood samples to increase studies and research on how the contaminants affect the body. 

Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan noted the issues with a continued lack of information on the compounds. Research is moving along, but progress is slow.

“We still don’t know exactly how this harms humans,” Sullivan said. “We need to focus on the promulgation of enforceable drinking water standards with regard to PFAS, which haven’t yet.”

Sullivan serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee which has looked into PFAS legislation in recent months.

Alaska officials recently announced a decision to study an additional 18 chemical compounds found in the PFAS family, though the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation will still only regulate the two most known, PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).

Sullivan says it might be hasty to overregulate the substances before additional research is done to find a replacement. 

For example, an aircraft fire can be extinguished extremely quickly with the firefighting foam currently in question. In the senator’s opinion, it’s important to be able to use an extinguisher like that to save the airmen who may be harmed otherwise. 

“You need to phase it out when you have the ability to have a foam that actually works,” Sullivan said. “The whole point is if you’ve got a jet that’s on fire and there’s somebody in there, this comes in and extinguishes the fire just like that. What else can do that? We’re trying to find replacement chemicals that still work like that.”

Even with resistance to fully outlaw the substance, Congress is taking strides in raising awareness and studies of the contamination. 

In December, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen sent a joint letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, urging the agencies to study health impacts of PFAS contaminants on firefighters exposed to the substances.

Murkowski is also a co-sponsor of the PFAS Action Act, a bill that would require the EPA to list PFAS as hazardous substances that qualify for federal funds to aid cleanup through the EPA Superfund Law. The bill would allow the EPA to target parties responsible in the contamination for cleanup costs.

Sullivan also backs the measure.

The Protecting Military Firefighters from PFAS Act, another piece of legislation introduced earlier this year, would require that health officials perform blood tests for PFAS as part of routine physicals for military firefighters. 

Sullivan is either a co-sponsor or has voiced support for many of these acts. 

“I think the EPA is very, very focused on all the research,” Sullivan said. “They’re trying to get their arms around it. It’s a very significant problem — it’s a huge problem. Three years ago nobody was even talking about this. It went from not being talked about to being a huge area of focus, which I think is actually a positive.”

Many of these smaller bills are folded into the National Defense Authorization Act, or the annual defense spending bill.

The best way to get individual legislation passed is to piggy back it onto the NDAA, Sullivan notes. That’s a bill that passes, or at least should pass, every single year, so if lawmakers add individual bills to the package, it’s a sure-fire way to get the legislation attention while individual bills may fall by the wayside in the midst of larger scale budgetary discussions. 

PFAS legislation pushing for further research and restriction is included in both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA. The two versions of the legislation are currently in conference to iron out differences between the two bills.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.