Alaska will start monitoring villages for PFAS in anticipation of new EPA rules

A town on a cove as seen from above
A 2007 photo of the runway at Cold Bay, one of several communities the state is currently helping address PFAS contamination. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Beginning this fall, the state Department of Environmental Conservation will test the drinking water in 193 Alaska Native villages to identify levels of PFAS contamination.

PFAS are present in all sorts of household items with waterproof coatings — ranging from rain jackets to cookware — and have been linked to cancer and other health issues by the EPA. 

The bigger threat to Alaska communities though is the presence of these “forever chemicals” in a foam used in airport fire extinguishers.

Cindy Christian, who manages the state’s Drinking Water Program, said PFAS are still used in fighting fuel-based fires at military facilities or airports — which Alaska has a lot of.

“In other states, every little town doesn’t have an airport,” Christian said. “But in Alaska, most of our little communities, especially in the rural areas, do have airports. And so a lot of the PFAS contamination that we found in the state is associated with airport activities.”

The Alaska Legislature passed a bill that requires a switch to alternative fire fighting foam options by next year. But Christian said the damage has already been done in at least five communities. She said the state is currently helping replace or supplement contaminated water in Cold Bay, Gustavus, Yakutat, Dillingham and King Salmon. 

“Some of those systems are getting bottled water, some of them have already been provided with an alternative source of water, maybe it’s hooked up to another public water system, or they’ve gotten a new well,” Christian said. “So we’re in various stages in quite a few communities in addressing PFAS.”

Those communities were found to have unsafe levels of PFAS through a special contaminated sites program, but Alaska does not currently regulate the forever chemicals in drinking water.

Christian said there are some in-home water filters that can remove them, but if your community hasn’t yet heard from the state, she doesn’t expect they’ll find PFAS in your drinking water.

The EPA has proposed a rule it hopes to finalize this year that would regulate six different PFAS chemicals, which Christian’s department would then begin regulating. That would cap the safe level of contamination about 10 times lower than the level Alaska has used to determine if communities need bottled water, according to Christian.

The newly announced monitoring plan is funded by a tribal-focused grant, so it only targets Alaska Native villages, but Christian said they plan to sample the rest of the state water systems later this year.

Michael Fanelli reported on economics and hosted the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. 

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