Yakutat officials in the dark over PFAS contamination

Yakutat is a coastal community of 600 people halfway between Anchorage and Juneau. (CoastAlaska file photo)

State officials say they’ll soon begin shipping water to Yakutat after PFAS contamination was found in wells near the Southeast city’s state-owned airport.

But local officials say state agencies have so far kept the community in the dark over the extent of the community’s contamination.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination is emerging as a nationwide problem. In Alaska, the compounds have leached into groundwater around airports. That’s because a firefighting foam required by the FAA until recently was used during practice drills at state-owned airports.

Kristin Bridges, a state toxicologist with the Department of Health and Human Services, says residents whose wells have elevated levels of PFAS shouldn’t drink or cook with contaminated water.

Traditional purifying methods don’t work.

“Boiling water does not remove PFAS,” Bridges said. “In fact, it can actually concentrate the amount of PFAS in the water as the steam rises off.”

Studies have shows PFAS compounds can affect kidney and liver functions as well as reproductive organs.

Which can include testicular cancer and decreased fertility in women,” Bridges said. “And there are also some studies that show potential developmental effects which including reduced birth weight and some skeletal abnormalities.”

As recently as March, Yakutat was listed as among Alaska communities with PFAS contaminated wells. But it wasn’t included in the state’s PFAS database or among the four communities receiving drinking water supplies from the state despite its elevated levels.

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced Friday it would soon begin shipping water to at least one Yakutat property.

The decision comes one week after CoastAlaska requested test results from Yakutat wells from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation that were completed in February.

The May 10 public records request remains pending as of Tuesday.

Yakutat officials haven’t been any more successful in seeing the lab results from groundwater tests.

I was asking about a level that was dangerous, or at least problematic, and why they hadn’t notified us,” said borough manager Jon Erickson. He first asked for more information on May 13. “And I asked DEC and they said they would send me the results. And I still haven’t heard anything from DEC as far as results.”

But the lab data from 14 wells around the airport is available. The grassroots Gustavus PFAS Action Coalition — has been grappling with widespread contamination around its airport — posted Yakutat’s test results and other documents online.

They were obtained earlier this year from a records request and shared online: five of the 14 wells had detectable amounts of PFAS.

One Yakutat well had levels exceeding the standards set by the Walker administration in August 2018.

But in a controversial move, the DEC has since changed the standard. It now screens for just two PFAS compounds rather than five.

That puts Alaska in line with less-stringent federal standards. And it make it less likely for a test sample to exceed 70 parts per trillion — the action level in which the state supplies alternative drinking water.

DEC’s Jason Brune told the House Resources Committee on May 10 that his agency will be aligned with the federal government until more studies are available.

We feel that what we’re doing by focusing on PFOS and PFOA — the two contaminants that the most is known about and the ones that EPA is choosing to lead their efforts on — is the best way to ensure that we’re making the right approach going forward,” Brune told lawmakers.

But DEC’s roll back has not been well-received from agency staffers working on PFAS.

In a internal memo obtained and recently published by CoastAlaska, one of DEC’s top managers accused the Dunleavy administration of acting against the advice of career environmental and public health professionals.

“The best way to protect our citizens of the state of Alaska is not by rolling back standards,” wrote DEC’s Sally Schlichting in an April 28 memo to her supervisor.

Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) recently called a hearing on PFAS contamination. She told CoastAlaska she’s concerned that the state’s response is being directed at the political level.

When we had put some pressure on the commissioner on this topic, there was reporting where the commissioner said this was an executive-level decision — that it came from the governor’s office,” Tarr said earlier this month.

Tarr co-chairs the House Resources Committee which was largely skeptical over the Dunleavy administration’s move to rollback action levels.

We have communities that are now without water — they are having to use bottled water because of this contamination,” she said. “So, it’s a really serious issue.”

The state’s roll-back of PFAS regulations took effect in April. It ceases screening for three compounds that had previously been tested for. Under the new methods, no wells tested in Yakutat would qualify for state-supplied drinking water.

But in a March 28 memo to the governor’s office DEC’s Jason Brune explained all contaminated wells tested before March 19 would be grandfathered in — though until Friday that hadn’t included the Yakutat well with elevated levels under the original standard.

DOT officials explained that Yakutat’s results came in as the state was transitioning to the new standard. On Friday, the decision was made that Yakutat should be supplied water under last year’s guidelines.

“Sampling in Yakutat occurred as we were transitioning from the 2018 action levels to the current action level,” DOT spokeswoman Meadow Bailey wrote in a statement. “Understanding that it took time to establish the current action level, the decision was made to deliver water to Yakutat.”

The water shipment to Yakutat is not on the scale of Gustavus which has at least a dozen affected properties.

As of March, state transportation officials report they have put 1,800 gallons of drinking water in five-gallon jugs on the state ferry.

That’s been going on since September and the water shipments are dependent on the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Staffers at multiple state agencies say the tussle over getting water shipped to a single Yakutat property illustrates the friction between agency staff and the Dunleavy administration over how to tackle PFAS contamination — something that Alaska and other states are only beginning to come to terms with.

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

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