Bill Passed to End Use of PFA Pollutant

Alaska Beacon
    For the second time in two years, the Alaska Legislature passed a bill requiring a phase-out of firefighting foams with contaminants called “forever chemicals.”
    The chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are commonly known as PFAS, have become notorious for their persistence and widespread presence in the environment.
    Known for their resistance to flames and degradation, PFAS chemicals – which number in the thousands — have been used since the 1950s in a wide variety of products, from consumer goods like clothing and cookware to industrial materials like paints, sealants and drilling fluids. The chemicals have spread over time into soils, waterways, drinking water supplies and people’s bodies. The chemicals have been linked to developmental delays in children, reproductive problems in adults, increased cancer risks, weakened immune systems and other health problems.
    Firefighting foams, the subject of the bill passed by the legislature, Senate Bill 67, are the most common source of PFAS pollution in Alaska and in other U.S. states.
    The bill requires a switch to PFAS-free foams by the start of 2025. It also authorizes a program to remove PFAS firefighting foams from villages with fewer than 2,000 people.
    A bill last year that included similar provisions was vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
    Preventing more PFAS pollution, which has already proved costly to address, is the bill’s goal, said the sponsor, said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau.
    “I think getting that PFAS bill back to the governor’s desk will prevent a lot of spills and poisoned drinking water in rural Alaska. Prevention’s cheaper than cleanup,” Kiehl said on Thursday, the day after the Legislature adjourned.
    Numerous villages around the state received, in the past, special “Code Red” kits: portable firefighting units that included PFAS foams. Most of those kits are no longer operable, but the foams in them remain a hazard, Kiehl said.
    “A critical, critical thing in the bill is that help removing the PFAS foam from tiny rural villages that do not have the money for hazmat removal on their own,” he said.
    Last year, lawmakers approved the substance of Senate Bill 67 after it was folded into a separate bill, House Bill 51, that was aimed at stopping use of another type of chemical — hydrofluorocarbons — as refrigerants. Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, are potent greenhouse gases, and the bill would have ensured that building codes in Alaska allow for HFC-free alternatives.
    The bundled HFC-PFAs bill passed both chambers with wide support. However, Gov. Dunleavy vetoed House Bill 51, citing concerns about the state burden of removing PFAS foams from communities.
    This time around, Kiehl said, there were some alterations that should alleviate the governor’s concerns.
    Instead of having the state conduct the actual PFAS collection from rural villages and dispose of it, the state will reimburse rural communities for the cost of doing that, Kiehl said. Reimbursable costs include those of replacing equipment that might have been contaminated with PFAS foams.
    The statewide cost is estimated at $2.55 million, money that is already contained in the just-passed capital budget for the coming fiscal year.
    Alaska Community Action on Toxics, a nonprofit that has studied PFAS contamination in the state, praised lawmakers for passing Kiehl’s bill.
    “The passage of this legislation is so meaningful to all of us who are working to protect water quality and community health throughout Alaska from the devastating effects of PFAS,” Pamela Miller, ACAT’s executive director, said in a statement. “We look forward to further work with legislators on the complex problems associated with PFAS contamination and ensuring protection of our waters, wildlife, and people.”  
    A study by ACAT published last year found PFAS contamination in all 15 waterways tested in the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas. Those contaminated waters included popular recreation sites and sites in residential neighborhoods.
    Dunleavy has not yet taken a position on Senate Bill 67, said a spokesperson. “The governor will review the legislation after it is transmitted to his office and make a decision,” Jeff Turner, Dunleavy’s communications director, said by email.
    Nearly all Americans have some level of PFAS contaminants in their bodies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though concentrations of some PFAS compounds have dropped considerably in recent years as their use has been cut back.
    Contamination of drinking water has been a concern nationally. The Environmental Protection Agency in April made final the nation’s first enforceable limits on six types of PFAS compounds.
    Within Alaska, there are nearly 500 sites that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has identified as being contaminated with PFAS compounds. They range geographically from Imikpuk Lake and the old airstrip near it on the northern outskirts of Utqiagvik to the Ketchikan airport in Southeast to Shemya Island, site of a former U.S. Air Force station, near the western tip of the Aleutians. 
    Airports have been common sources of PFAS pollution, as their firefighting units were previously required by the federal government to use PFAS-containing fire-suppression foams. That requirement was recently lifted by the Federal Aviation Administration, which last year released a plan for airports to transition to approved non-PFAS foams.
    Passage of Senate Bill 67 coincides with other federal actions to diminish PFAS use and presence in the environment.
    The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024 that was signed into law on Thursday by President Joe Biden includes establishment of a $350 million fund to reimburse airports across the nation for costs of replacing PFAS-using firefighting equipment. The fund will also pay for disposal of PFAS chemicals.
    Twenty-six Alaska airports, including the international airports in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, are eligible for FAA funding for PFAS replacement, said Joe Plesha, a spokesperson for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
    The bill passed by the Legislature carves out exceptions to the PFAS-free mandate.
    Those foams would continue to be used if required by federal law, according to the bill.
    Additionally, oil and gas facilities, which are at risk of especially intense fires, would be allowed to continue using those foams until the state fire marshal makes a formal determination that an alternative PFAS-free firefighting foam is available, safe and effective. Once that determination is made, the state fire marshal is to issue a regulation that will prompt the transition at oil and gas facilities to PFAS-free foams, according to the bill.

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