Eielson PFAS cleanup project won’t clear all contamination, expert says

The Army Corps of Engineers has awarded a contract to clean up PFAS-contaminated soil at Eielson Air Force Base. The chemical used in firefighting foams has been linked to serious health problems. And a longtime Alaska contamination expert is skeptical of the PFAS-cleanup technique that’ll be used at Eielson.

The Corps of Engineers awarded the $27.6 million contract to Anchorage-based Brice Engineering on Nov. 10. It calls for the contractor to clean up about 130,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil excavated during construction of eight facilities to accommodate the buildup of F-35 fighter jets at Eielson. That’s enough soil to cover an acre of land about nine feet deep.

PFAS-contaminated sites at Eielson Air Force Base
A 2015 DEC publication includes this map of four areas around Eielson contaminated with perflourooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, a PFAS-related chemical compound, and 12 other suspected sites. It also shows a plume of PFOS-contaminated groundwater that extends northward from Eielson into the Moose Creek area. (From Alaska DEC)

The contractor will employ a process called “soil washing” that uses water to extract enough of the PFAS to meet the state’s cleanup standard. But Pam Miller, the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, says the project presents several concerns.

“It’s an experimental technology. I don’t think it’s proven,” she said in a Nov. 21 interview.

Miller says soil-washing lacks enough real-world testing to ensure it’ll work as well as its advocates claim. And she says there’s a lack of transparency on whether the process will clean the soil enough to be safe for uses such as backfill, as required by the contract.

“So I have some big questions about that, and some skepticism,” she said. “And I think there are some better and more innovative technologies out there that actually destroy PFAS.”

An Eielson spokesperson referred questions about the PFAS cleanup to the Army Corps of Engineers. Guy Warren, a Corps of Engineers project manager, said in an email last week that the water that washes away the PFAS will be run through filters to remove two PFAS-related compounds, PFOS and PFOA.

Warren wrote that “a high concentration/low volume solution” of the processed water would then be incinerated.

But Miller says some of the more than 12,000 chemical compounds — collectively referred to as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — will get through the filter. And she says the contaminated filters would then create another disposal problem.

“So this is trading one hazardous waste stream for another,” she said. “And there’s no really effective, safe way to dispose of these concentrated hazardous wastes that these granulated activated charcoal filters become.”

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is the term used to collectively refer to a family of related chemical compounds.

Miller says she also worries that the state standards for PFAS soil remediation that the contractor must meet aren’t stringent enough to protect human health.

“This class of chemicals, the PFAS chemicals, are virtually unregulated at this point,” she said. “There are not health-protective standards for drinking water, for soil cleanup.”

Miller says two measures introduced in the last legislative session would’ve set standards high enough to protect peoples’ health. But lawmakers failed to pass the measures, so she hopes they’ll be reintroduced in the coming session.

“We just don’t think that state is doing enough to enact enforceable standards, whether for soil cleanup or for groundwater or drinking-water standards,” she said. “And that’s what we need.”

PFAS-contaminated sites statewide
A map compiled by DEC shows several PFAS hotspots all around Alaska, including military installations, airports and Alyeska Pipeline facilities. (From Alaska DEC)

The soil-washing project would clean up only one of Eielson’s 16 known and suspected PFAS-contaminated sites. Axl LeVan, an environmental program specialist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an email Tuesday that DEC doesn’t know the full extent of contamination around the base. He said the agency estimated six years ago the size of a plume of PFAS-contaminated groundwater extending from Eielson to Moose Creek at about 4,770 acres.

Several other military installations in Alaska also are dealing with the problem, including Fort Greely and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. PFAS contamination also has been found at civilian facilities like the Fairbanks Regional Fire Training Center and Alyeska’s pipeline Pump Stations 8 and 10. Most emergency service agencies have since switched to other types of firefighting foam that don’t use PFAS. But the contamination is persistent, and Eielson’s PFAS problem is among the worst.

“Both the state and the federal government, including the Department of Defense, are moving entirely too slowly,” Miller said. “PFAS represents a very severe threat to the public health and the environment. And it’s not being taken seriously enough.”

PFAS and related compounds have been linked to cancers, endocrine disorders, reproductive-health issues and immune-system deficiencies.

Warren, the Corps of Engineers official, says the contractor will build facilities on Eielson next spring and begin soil-washing in the summer. The Corps hopes to complete the PFAS cleanup project by the end of 2026.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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