Dissent at DEC emerges over roll-back of PFAS regulations

DEC”s map of known PFAS-contaminated sites in Alaska. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances chemicals are found in some firefighting foams and a wide range of consumer products. Exposure has been linked to adverse health effects. (Image courtesy of Department of Environmental Conservation)

The Dunleavy administration’s decision to redefine PFAS levels considered safe in drinking water has caused dissension among a senior staffer working on contaminated sites. Lawmakers are scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue later this week.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has quietly reclassified how it measures per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination in ground water. In April, the state agency said it would test for fewer chemicals to determine whether well water is safe to drink.

The shift in policy won’t affect the thousands of households whose wells have elevated PFAS levels and receive alternative water supplies from the state. But going forward, DEC would use the new, less-stringent standards before providing supplemental water.

The move was panned by environmental groups pointing to fears of long-term health effects in people and the environment.

At least one senior staffer working on contaminated sites expressed concern.

“As the manager for the Contaminated Sites Program’s unit for science-based regulatory standards policy, I am stating my objection to the administration’s recent decision to put regulations on hold,” wrote DEC’s Sally Schlichting in an internal memo obtained this week by CoastAlaska.

“The best way to protect our citizens of the state of Alaska is not by rolling back standards,” she wrote in the April 28 memo to the head of DEC’s Contaminated Sites Program. “Such action goes against our responsibility as environmental and health professionals to ensure the drinking water of Alaskans is safe.”

Schlichting is on leave through May 17 and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Officials in the Commissioner’s Office say they hadn’t seen the memo until Wednesday. DEC Commissioner Jason Brune brushed off the criticism.

“This individual is entitled to her opinion. However, she does not speak for DEC nor for the administration,” Brune said in a Wednesday statement.

Read Brune’s full statement here.

The science surrounding PFAS is evolving and noted the federal government is already working to craft an updated standard for states to follow, Brune said.

“We will be closely monitoring the EPA’s progress on this issue and the emerging science, and if necessary we will adjust our course,” Brune added.

House Democrats have criticized this approach.

“There’s no reason that you should not take action to protect the health of your citizens of the environment and clean drinking water,” Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) said, “because at some point — and we hope in the future — that the federal government is going to take action?

Tarr co-chairs the House Resources Committee which has scheduled a Friday hearing on PFAS contamination.

The internal DEC memo lends evidence that the state’s revised PFAS policy was a political decision, she said, rather than a move to protect human health and the environment.

“And so it tells me that the administration ignored the recommendations of the scientists at their department,” Tarr added.

Much of the contamination discovered last year was in wells around Fairbanks, Bristol Bay and the Southeast community of Gustavus. It’s likely much of the PFAS pollution is from an FAA-mandated fire suppressant foam used at airports.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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