Alaska senator’s fight to regulate ‘forever chemicals’ gets a boost from new federal standards

Jesse Kiehl and clean water advocates
Senator Jesse Kiehl speaks to clean water advocates as they rally for state-level PFAS protections on March 14, 2023. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first ever national limit on PFAS compounds in drinking water.

Known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, PFAS have been linked to cancer, liver damage and high cholesterol.

The news comes as one Alaska lawmaker continues his fight to regulate the chemicals — which have been found in drinking water from the North Slope to Southeast Alaska — at the state level.

“The most important thing we can do in Alaska today is turn off the tap,” said state Sen. Jesse Kiehl from the Capitol steps at a rally Tuesday in Juneau.

Kiehl represents Gustavus, where PFAS from firefighting foam has contaminated drinking water, soil and berries. His previous bills, which did not pass, sought to regulate the amount of PFAS in Alaskans’ drinking water.

Kiehl’s current bill, SB67, would instead outlaw firefighting foams that contain PFAS and require the use of alternatives that do not contain the chemicals. The foams are typically used on fuel fires at airports.

“The way it’s gotten into Alaskans’ drinking water is firefighting foams,” he said. “We don’t have heavy manufacturing in the state that has discharged this stuff. We don’t have people getting their drinking water downgradient from landfills where there might be a bunch of this stuff. It really has been firefighting foam.”

He said the EPA announcement is great news, but he still wants to stop contamination before any more gets in drinking water.

“I still need to pass this bill to prevent any new spills of this stuff into Alaska’s environment,” he said.

Health effects in Alaska

On the Capitol steps Tuesday, a group of demonstrators rallied in support of Kiehl’s bill.

Michelle Meyer was diagnosed with what her doctors called a rare form of leukemia when she was in her late 50s. She grew up in Yakutat, where PFAS contamination from firefighting foams has been documented.

“I drank the water at my elementary school for years, and it was contaminated, so I am coming to terms that I can probably attribute it to my exposure,” she said. “I want to see this bill pass so that no more children are exposed to PFAS contaminated water.”

PFAS chemicals are linked to cancer, among other negative health effects, but it is hard to attribute specific illnesses to them because they accumulate in the system over time.

Meyer’s son Connor joined her on the Capitol steps. He said he will never forget the pain of seeing his mother so ill and preparing for her death.

“I really hope that this bill goes through, so that no other child ever has to be in that scenario, to think about these sorts of things at such a young age,” he said.

Meyer also attributes his mother’s illness to PFAS — and he says it could have been prevented.

“All of this came because she chose to stay in a place that she was culturally connected to,” he said. “It scares me that living in the village is not responsible health-wise — that the inaction from the government and from community leaders around this topic have created an unsafe space for children to grow up.”

Federal action

Alaska does not regulate PFAS in drinking water. But when the EPA’s standards take effect, the state’s water systems will need to clean any of the “forever chemicals” out of their water. It’s an expensive and complicated task. Water utilities could end up paying.

The manager of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s drinking water program is supportive of the move.

“I think this is a step in the right direction,” said Cindy Christian, who has worked for the agency for nearly 25 years. “PFAS has been an issue throughout the country, and the EPA has committed to promulgating this rule.”

Christian said DEC will implement the federal standards once they are finalized, which will limit PFAS in drinking water to 4 parts per trillion — a concentration so small that it’s on the threshold of detectability. Water systems throughout the state will likely be required to test their water — and treat it, if PFAS are present.

Patrice Lee is an advocate for clean air and water in Fairbanks, where the municipal water has four types of PFAS in it. The levels aren’t a violation because the state has no standards, but they will be if the new federal standards take effect.

The city’s report says the contamination came from firefighting foams. Lee testified in favor of Kiehl’s bill this week.

“Scores of lakes can no longer be fished and the fish cannot be taken or eaten,” she told legislators. “In my very favorite family place, the Pile Driver Slough where we’ve always spent Mother’s Day, can no longer be fished in because it’s contaminated with PFAS.”

The public has 60 days to comment on the EPA’s proposal. The agency expects to enact the standards by the end of this year. If enacted, Cindy Christian says her program will have two years to adopt the new rules.

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