FAIRBANKS — Golden Heart Utilities has suspended all sales of its compost that has been sold annually to local farmers and gardeners due to PFAS contaminants in the compost stockpiles, according to an announcement from the utility company Thursday afternoon.
PFAS, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a category of human-made chemicals that repel water and grease and are found in products such as nonstick pans and raincoats. Much of the contamination in Alaska is caused by firefighting foams used at airports and fire training sites. PFAS are known as emerging contaminants, chemicals known to cause sickness in animals, but their exact health effects on humans aren’t well understood.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a health-advisory level of 70 parts per trillion — about three drops in an Olympic-size pool — for PFAS.
Golden Heart Utilities has produced its recycled compost using biosolids from wastewater processed by the plant for a number of years.
While there is no official guidance on safe levels of PFAS in compost, Tiffany Van Horn, vice president of Golden Heart Utilities, said the company is erring on the side of caution.
"The utility continues to believe in the benefits of biosolid recycling," a news release from the utility reads, noting that the compost has always met compliance with Environmental Protection Agency biosolid regulations. "However, PFOS and PFOA have been detected in the compost."
According to a fact sheet distributed Thursday afternoon, the Alaska Department Environmental Conservation agreed with the utility's decision to discontinue its compost operation.
Van Horn said it's not clear where the contaminants are coming from but that they likely are entering the facility from residential and commercial areas through the sewer system.
"It's not coming from within the plant," Van Horn told the Daily News-Miner. "We don't add PFAS during our process."
While no specific studies exist, according to the Department of Health and Social Services website, plants watered with contaminated water or grown in contaminated soil — or compost in this case — have been shown to take up some PFAS from the water or soil. The amount of PFAS absorbed by fruits and vegetables tends to vary based on the severity of the PFAS contamination, and the types of PFAS in the environment and the produce grown.
"Different parts of the same plant are also expected to accumulate variable amounts and types of PFAS (fruits usually have the lowest concentration of PFAS of concern)," the department's website reads.
Ultimately, however, exposure to PFAS contaminants by eating fruits or vegetables is unlikely to be substantial, particularly when compared with consuming contaminated water, the department advised.
In the Fairbanks area, PFAS levels above state pollution standards have contaminated 283 private drinking water wells as of this spring.
The contaminants were first detected near Fairbanks in 2015 in the Moose Creek area of North Pole. That same year, the contaminants were detected near the Fairbanks Fire Training Center; then again in 2017 near Fairbanks International Airport. Additional studies of the contaminants in and around Fairbanks have continued since.
A decision announced in March by the state DEC rejected draft regulations for when a polluter would have to clean up the same four chemicals. But the state went even further last month by reversing a testing policy already in practice within the state. In an April 9 memo, the DEC described the policy as an effort to align Alaska with pending federal standards, but ultimately the new policy allows the state to restrict toxics testing to only two of the most heavily studied types of these chemicals: PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).
Jason Brune, Alaska DEC commissioner, defended the choice in testimony to the House Resources Committee earlier this month, stating that “following the lead of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was incredibly important.”
“We feel that by focusing on PFOS and PFOA, the two contaminants that the most is known about and the ones that the EPA is choosing to lead their efforts on, is the best way to ensure that we’re making the right approach going forward,” Brune told the committee.
While PFAS contaminants have notably affected ground water in wells in the Fairbanks area, the contaminants have also affected local bodies of water, raising concerns about recreation in the affected areas. Last month two North Pole-area lakes were closed to fishing due to detected levels of PFAS in the water, and likely in the fish.
In early April, the state Department of Fish and Game announced the closure of both Kimberly Lake, which is northwest of North Pole High School off of Roseanne Court, and Polaris Lake on Eielson Air Force Base.
In addition to closing these two lakes, Fish and Game has suspended the stocking of hatchery fish in all lakes on Eielson Air Force Base, said Tim Viavant, regional management coordinator for the department, in a phone interview.
In response to concerns raised regarding contaminated wells and the use of PFAS containing firefighting foams in the area, the Fairbanks city government joined 75 other cities across the country in filing a lawsuit against two companies whose products polluted groundwater around the city’s fire training center.
The lawsuit seeks at least $4.3 million from manufacturers to recoup costs the city has spent cleaning up the site and providing clean drinking water to neighbors whose water had high levels of PFAS.
On a larger scale, the issue of PFAS contamination has garnered attention on the national level, with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski praising last week a measure in this year's National Defense Authorization Act that works to protect military firefighters from the PFAS in firefighting foams.
In December, Murkowski and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen sent a joint letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, urging the agencies to study health impacts of PFAS contaminants on firefighters exposed to the substances.
Murkowski is also a co-sponsor of the PFAS Action Act, a bill that would require the EPA to list PFAS as hazardous substances that qualify for federal funds to aid cleanup through the EPA Superfund Law. The bill would allow the EPA to target parties responsible in the contamination for cleanup costs.