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DEC commissioner: Rollback of PFAS standards for drinking water came from governor to reduce confusion

Equipment used to test for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, in drinking water. (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP, File)

The Dunleavy administration this month scaled back drinking water pollution standards for a class of cancer-linked chemicals found in firefighting foam and everyday products, angering critics who say the move puts people’s health in increased danger.

Jason Brune, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said Thursday that Alaska’s standards for PFAS chemicals are strong compared to other states.

The class of chemicals known as PFAS have been used since the 1950s. They’re found in everything from firefighting foam to cookware, pizza boxes and stain-resistant fabrics.

Certain PFAS might increase the risk of cancer, cause decreased birth weight, immune system problems and other health effects in humans, federal agencies say.

Last year, the state under Gov. Bill Walker moved to strengthen standards to prevent people from drinking water with high PFAS levels. It began counting six PFAS chemicals in water, rather than just the two that had previously been counted. It began taking steps to put the new standard into law. Testing began that allowed people to receive alternative drinking water if levels were too high.

But in April, the DEC said it would suspend that regulatory proposal and go back to counting just the two compounds that the Environmental Protection Agency says are the most studied, known as PFOA and PFOS.

Brune said the change was made to align state standards with the EPA, which has set drinking water guidance levels for the two compounds, but not the other four.

Brune said the EPA has also committed to moving quickly toward setting enforceable drinking water limits for the two compounds, and learning more about the others.

There are lots of questions about the chemicals that the agency has the resources to help answer, he said.

“With the EPA taking the lead on this, we made the decision that it’s important to see the science and understand what’s going on,” Brune said. “This is a big deal. It’s incredibly important, and we really need as a new administration to understand this before finalizing any regulations.”

Jason Brune (Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation)

The change came at the direction of Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock, Brune said.

Pamela Miller, with Alaska Community Action on Toxics, said the state should not wait on the EPA.

“People have been poisoned, exposed to high levels of these chemicals probably for decades,” Miller said. “It requires responsible, urgent action, so somehow waiting for the federal government to take action is just absurd.”

“It doesn’t make sense to take a step forward and then take a leap backward," said Nana Paldi, with a Fairbanks group called Wakeup Alaskans to the Toxic Environmental Reality, or WATER. “One drop of this stuff is poison in the water as far as I’m concerned.”

The known impact of the chemicals in Alaska is largely tied to the firefighting foam used for training at military bases and airports. Contaminated sites include Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, and state airports in Dillingham, King Salmon and Gustavus, according to an online state database.

The stricter standards were in place for about six months, following the release of a technical memo in August. That lasted until April 9, when the DEC released a new technical memo that superseded the earlier one, said John Halverson, program manager for the state’s contaminated sites program.

During that time, the state prioritized testing at airports that might have the greatest risk of causing high PFAS contamination levels in drinking water, he said.

Under the stricter standard, the state found about 60 residential and business properties that qualified for alternative drinking water provided by the party responsible for the pollution, after well water was impacted, he said.

Those properties included sites in Fairbanks, Dillingham and Gustavus.

That compares to about 365 properties that had already been receiving alternative drinking water under the earlier standards, Halverson said.

The recent testing did not find problems with PFAS at some airports, such as Kenai, Valdez and Cordova, he said.

Though two chemicals are now being counted, alternative drinking water will still be provided for properties that have been receiving the water, including the newly listed ones, Brune said.

“We have made that commitment,” he said.

Testing, now under the two-compound plan, still needs to be done for about 15 other sites, said Halverson. Up next are state airports in Iliamna and Aniak in Western Alaska, where residential well water might be impacted, he said.

Brune said it’s “logical” to conclude that if the state continued to count six chemicals, instead of two, more contaminated properties would be found.

But he said it’s important to have rules that are consistent at the state and federal levels to avoid confusion.

Brune said public comments submitted last year on the six-chemical proposal offered various opinions.

The Defense Department and industry groups suggested the state follow the EPA’s lead, Halverson said. Conservation and public-interest groups said other states were proposing stricter standards than the EPA, and Alaska should, too.

Halverson said the EPA has committed to asking the public this year whether it should set a standard for the two PFAS compounds.

Miller said if the EPA decides to set a standard, that will spark a regulatory process that will take years before laws change, especially under a Trump administration that strongly supports industry.

Any EPA standard would not be strong enough, in part because it will only look at the two compounds, she said.

Brune said he’ll work to ensure EPA moves quickly: “The discussion I’ve heard is they’re putting this on the fast track. I’ll push to make sure it remains on the fast track.”

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