Clean water protections flounder in committee as Alaska legislative session draws to a close

Activists call for tighter restrictions to keep PFAS out of drinking water. May 12, 2022. (Stremple/KTOO)

Two bills that would tighten regulations on the group of chemicals known as PFAS are stalled in committee as Alaska’s legislative session draws to a close. They could just die at the end of session — which would send lawmakers back to square one and leave clean water advocates high and dry for another year.

PFAS have been linked to cancer, liver damage, fertility problems, asthma and thyroid disease. Activists rallied for the bills at the Alaska State Capitol last week.

“We think it’s high time that these bills be passed to protect our Alaska communities,” said Pamela Miller, director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “There are communities from the North Slope of Alaska, all the way down through Southeast that have contaminated drinking water because of this dispersive use of these chemicals in industrial firefighting foams, used on airports and on military bases.”

Sara Siqiñiq Thomas joined the rally to advocate for her hometown of Utqiaġvik where firefighting foams at a naval base contaminated drinking water at Imikpuk Lake.

“I know too many people who have passed away from cancer in their 20s, people who have been on thyroid medication since their teens, things that are not normal and we’re seeing way too much of it,” she said.

Those foams are also the source of contamination around a state-run airport in Gustavus, where the state supplies bottled water to residents like JoAnn Lesh whose wells have been poisoned with toxic runoff.

JoAnn Lesh’s Gustavus property and drinking water was contaminated with PFAS from the nearby state-run airport. Sen. Jesse Kiehl and Rep. Sara Hannan look on. May 12, 2022. (Stremple/KTOO)

“I’m the face of it. I’m the face of PFAS,” she said.

Lesh and her husband ran an inn at what’s basically the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park for years, where they served patrons fresh food from their garden. She said discovering the water and soil on their property is contaminated was devastating.

“We moved there for everything to be pristine and everything is now polluted,” she said.

Senator Jesse Kiehl represents Gustavus and he’s been working on PFAS legislation since he was elected. He’s one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 121, which would put tighter regulation on PFAS in the state and limit the use of firefighting foams that are known to contain PFAS. He says the state’s regulatory agency — the Department of Environmental Conservation — doesn’t do enough to protect Alaskans from PFAS.

“The problem of these PFAS chemicals, these are forever chemicals. They don’t break down. They don’t go away. And they are in Alaskans’ drinking water,” he said.

He says Senate Bill 121 and its companion bill House Bill 171 would do the bare minimum to protect Alaskans’ drinking water and ensure the toxic firefighting foams aren’t widely used in the state any longer.

He says there’s money to enact their legislation in the federal infrastructure bill.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation raised a number of concerns about the legislation. DEC once regulated PFAS to higher standards but rolled them back following political pressure.

Tiffany Larson directs the division of Spill Prevention and Response at DEC. She says the state defers to the federal government — specifically the Environmental Protection Agency — on the question of PFAS.

“We will follow EPA when they come out with new drinking water standards,” she said. “Because they have the resources and have been able to invest that sort of effort into that.”

But Representative Hannan says the federal government isn’t moving fast enough.

“We should not and cannot afford, for our health, to wait for the federal action to clean this up,” she said.

It would be difficult to pass the bills in the remaining hours of the legislative session. If they don’t pass, legislators say they will try again next year.

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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