Alaska lakes’ levels of ‘forever chemicals’ revealed as officials ponder actions to reduce risks
Cancer-linked contaminants known as “forever chemicals” are lurking in Anchorage and Fairbanks waterways that are popular recreation sites or flow near residential neighborhoods, showing the need for a stepped-up state response, according to a newly released study.
The study, by the nonprofit Alaska Community Action on Toxics, details the discoveries about perfluoroalkyl substances and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS substances, in waterways in the state’s two largest cities. In all 15 of the sites sampled, PFAS contamination was found, at extremely high levels in some cases, according to the study, issued last week.
“This, I think, just really indicates the urgency of taking action,” said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
The study comes at a time when legislators and state leaders are seeking ways to address the substances.
The study, based on samples taken in 2021 and 2022 at 15 sites in the state’s two biggest cities, found the highest PFAS levels in Anchorage’s Lake Spenard and Lake Hood. At 952.2 parts per trillion and 698.7 parts per trillion, they were about 10 times the health-advisory threshold for drinking water set in 2016 by the Environmental Protection Agency. That standard, 70 parts per trillion, is currently seen as far too lenient and is in the process of being dramatically lowered by the federal agency. The agency in June said it was working on standards of 0.02 and 0.004 parts per trillion for two of the most common types of PFAS compounds.
Use of PFAS compounds began in the 1950s, and there are thousands of them. Most famously, they are found in flame-suppressants. Most of the environmental PFAS contamination in Alaska and many other places is believed to have been caused by use of those firefighting foams at airports, where their use is mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Military sites are also known for using such foams. But the PFAS compounds are widespread in consumer and industrial products like nonstick cookware, clothing, upholstery and personal-care goods such as shampoos. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade.
The sites examined by Alaska Community Action on Toxics may be in addition to those listed by the state, as the Department of Environmental Conservation has focused more on the source areas, Miller said. For people using those waterways tested in the study, the results are concerning, she said.
After Lake Spenard and Lake Hood, the Fairbanks area had the sites with the third- and fourth-highest levels in the study, with Airport Lake coming in at 179.4 parts per trillion and the Nordale Gravel Pit in North Pole at 167.7 parts per trillion.
The other tested sites had ranges between 2.8 and 51.8 parts per trillion. They include Anchorage’s Ship Creek, site of a recreational salmon fishery in the city’s downtown area, and Little Campbell Lake, a popular Anchorage site for summer swimming and fishing, at 22.60 and 12.35 parts per trillion respectively.
The findings spell trouble on multiple levels – for people who rely on well water, for wildlife and pets and for anyone who eats fish caught in those water bodies, Miller said. While the levels in the water may not be dangerous for casual swimmers or boaters, PFAS compounds accumulate in the body over time, which is potentially ominous for fish, she said. At Kimberly Lake in North Pole – which is near a now-closed petroleum refinery and has been closed entirely to fishing — rainbow trout were found to have PFAS concentration nearly 2,000 times that of the water in which they were swimming, she said.
That points to another need, she said: better monitoring of PFAS contamination of fish. “Our next step is to test fish, because the state is not doing enough of that,” she said.
Bill seeks to end use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams
A bill introduced in the Legislature addresses the most common source of PFAS contamination – fire-suppressing foam.
There is a catch, however. The Federal Aviation Administration not only requires use of PFAS-containing substance to fight fires but also for regular fire tests, Kiehl said. “Airport firefighters who sprayed this stuff were following every rule. They were required to do it,” he said.
His bill, Senate Bill 67, anticipates that alternative, non-PFAS-containing firefighting foams will be available in the near future. Those alternatives are already in development – though Kiehl said the FAA is far overdue in changing its rules about PFAS-substance use.
Once alternatives are approved by appropriate federal agencies, the state fire marshal would adopt regulations requiring them to be used in place of the PFAS substances, under the bill.
Another provision addresses part of the cleanup problem. It directs the Department of Environmental Conservation to collect and properly dispose of the relatively small amounts of PFAS-containing foams held by fire departments in rural communities. “These tiny rural firefighting departments do not have the money to send that down to a haz-mat site,” he said.
Miller said Kiehl’s bill is a good legislative start.
“It essentially shuts off the tap, which is definitely a good thing,” she said.
But much more is needed, she said. That includes establishment of statewide drinking-water standards in line with modern knowledge, stepped-up monitoring of both water and fish, alternative water sources provided for people who need it and other measures.
Kiehl did propose stricter state drinking-water standards in a bill last year, Senate Bill 121, but it failed to pass.
Alaska DEC moving to new PFAS standards for drinking water
This year’s bill is more narrowly focused, Kiehl said, in part because Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune has pledged to issue new and stricter standards for PFAS levels in drinking water.
That pledge was made at the Alaska Forum on the Environment, held in Anchorage earlier this month. Brune said the department will likely release its new PFAS standards within the next three months. The state effort comes amid some delays in the federal Environmental Protection Agency standard-setting, he said.
“We are going to be setting levels for the state of Alaska, where we obviously saw that the EPA is not necessarily moving at the pace that we would want them to. We are going to be proposing our own,” Brune said
Four years ago, though, the Dunleavy administration scrapped some stricter PFAS standards proposed during the preceding Walker administration. Those proposed standards would have provided for testing for six types of PFAS compounds, an expansion from the two most common types for which tests were previously conducted. The Dunleavy administration rollback was criticized by legislators, community residents and even by at least one expert within the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Brune also said the department wants more research into ways to remove and destroy PFAS contaminants. He pointed to a pilot project permitted by his department in 2019 that experimented with ultra-high-temperature burning to remove PFAS contamination from soil. Brune said the incineration technology shows promise as an alternative to the current method, which is to barge contaminated soil to the Lower 48 for storage in hazardous waste sites.
“We can’t just continue to put this in landfills and think that’s a solution,” he said in his Feb. 8 remarks at the forum.
Alaska Community Action on Toxics is skeptical of that incineration technology, Miller said. Investigations have revealed problems with it, she said.
“Incinerating PFAS does not destroy PFAS. They go up into the atmosphere,” she said.
Instead of trying to burn away the contaminants, ACAT and other groups see promise in a different disposal technology, supercritical water oxidation, that is being developed. Until that is available, she said, the contaminants “should be stored safely and protected.”
Brune, however, said EPA evaluations back the idea of using heat to break down PFAS compounds. Recent EPA assessments say thermal destruction is possible, though it is a technology that continues to be tested; the agency has compiled a database of information from various tests. The agency is promoting development of non-incineration technologies to remove PFAS contamination.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the difference between the PFAS levels at Anchorage lakes and the EPA standards and to correct the status of stricter PFAS standards in the Walker administration: They were proposed but not set. In addition, the information about PFAS incineration was expanded to include more information from Brune and current research.