Gustavus calls for halt to state construction project after officials find more toxins at city’s airport

Gustavus Airport terminal (Photo by Mike Castleman/Creative Commons)

Concerned residents in the Southeast Alaska town of Gustavus pushed state agencies to do more testing for contaminants before major construction at the city’s airport. And the state found more toxic “forever chemicals” at the site. Now, the City of Gustavus and a local advocacy group want the state to stop work until their safety demands have been met.

The state had already broken ground on a big federally funded airport upgrade project when test results revealed previously undocumented PFAS contamination on asphalt at the site.

PFAS are a group of toxic chemicals found in firefighting foam that used to be required at defense sites — and airports like the Gustavus airport. They’re known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down. There’s evidence they’re linked to cancer, thyroid problems and other health effects.

The asphalt thing was a big surprise — environmental regulators don’t typically ask for tests on asphalt. It’s not really absorbent like soil is. But citizens were concerned because the agency plans to scrape up the asphalt and grind it up to make new material. The state Department of Transportation, who is leading the project, responded to their request and found that there was PFAS present in the sample it tested.

Kelly McLaughlin is among the concerned citizens that asked for a full stop to the construction earlier this month.

“What we are asking for basically is just for the preventative measures to keep these PFAS from spreading further into the community,” McLaughlin said.

She found out her well water was too contaminated to drink in 2018. Her chickens and their eggs tested positive for PFAS. It’s in the soil where she kept a garden.

She founded the Gustavus PFAS Action Coalition to organize on behalf of her community.

“I don’t wish that lack of sleep and amount of worrying and lack of access to everything that you have worked for … I don’t wish that on anybody. And that that could come to many, many more people if the PFAS spread,” McLaughlin said.

The request was followed by a similar letter from the City of Gustavus. It asked the state to pump the brakes on a $20 million dollar upgrade at the airport. It cited “grave concerns” with the agency’s “lack of response” at the ongoing project. The city asked for a series of safeguards against public health before the agency continues work.

State regulators at the Department of Environmental Conservation threw out the project’s soil mitigation plan in response to the findings. The Department of Transportation & Public Facilities took more asphalt samples. The two agencies were scheduled to meet Monday morning to review the most recent test results and revise the soil mitigation plan. As of Monday afternoon, they had yet to comment on what was decided at that meeting and whether or not construction has been stopped.

McLaughlin said she realizes DOT is in a tough spot but said she thinks a solution is possible.

“If we can all work together and share information and help each other, I think we can get to a point where PFAS could be remediated at the airport in tandem with this project, and then it’s a win across the board for everybody. And that’s the ultimate goal,” she said.

The State of Alaska joined a lawsuit against certain PFAS manufacturers earlier this month. Sen. Jessie Kiehl represents Gustavus and is among lawmakers sponsoring a bill to regulate the use of PFAS in firefighting foams in the state.


Claire Stremple

Alaska News Reporter, KTOO

I believe every Alaskan has a right to timely information about their health and health systems, and their natural environment and its management. My goal is to report thoughtful stories that inform, inspire and quench the curiosity of listeners across the state.

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