With the stroke of his veto pen, Gov. Mike Dunleavy blatantly betrayed the voters of Alaska, people in communities affected by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, aka PFAS, as well as the 58 of 60 members of the Alaska State House and Senate who worked across party lines to pass a bill, House Bill 51, that would have been a significant step toward preventing further harm from these dangerous chemicals. The governor and his administration have ignored the exhaustive legislative process conducted by Alaska’s elected leaders and discounted the cries for help from communities across the state already contaminated with PFAS. The measure was supported by affected communities, tribes and Native organizations, and organizations of health care professionals.
PFAS contamination of our waters is a pervasive problem that threatens public health. Most of the water contamination in Alaska communities has been caused by the dispersive use of PFAS-based industrial firefighting foams — aqueous film-forming foams, or AFFF — on airports, refineries and military bases. Public drinking water sources and hundreds of residential wells are contaminated throughout our state. PFAS contaminate groundwater and surface waters, fish, wild game, garden produce, and backyard chickens. Several Alaska lakes are now closed to fishing because of PFAS contamination.
Alaska Community Action on Toxics, or ACAT, conducted independent water quality testing and published a report in February 2023 that found PFAS contamination in all lakes tested in the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Anchorage, as well as in Ship Creek. Levels of PFAS in Anchorage lakes and Ship Creek are similar to those that triggered fish consumption advisories by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for certain lakes in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Currently, there are 469 sites in Alaska where PFAS contamination has been identified in soil and water, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they are incredibly persistent and bioaccumulate. The science is definitive that PFAS cause serious adverse health effects at extremely low exposure levels, including kidney and testicular cancer, reproductive harm and infertility, immune system suppression, thyroid disruption, liver toxicity. We know they transfer from mothers to babies through breast milk.
Tragically, the work of firefighters to save lives puts them at higher risk of contracting cancer. Firefighters have a higher incidence of several cancers than the general population and are deeply concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals, including PFAS in firefighting foam and turnout gear. A new study published by the National Cancer Institute found a direct association between exposure to certain PFAS and testicular cancer in military firefighters.
HB 51 would have phased out the use of PFAS in firefighting foam and allowed for the substitution of safe alternatives. There are safe, effective, and economical alternatives to PFAS-based firefighting foams in use around the world on major airports, military bases, and in oil and gas operations. The entire North Sea oil operation uses effective PFAS-free alternatives. Currently, there are 35 PFAS-free and environmentally preferred products from 11 manufacturers that meet the rigorous requirements of GreenScreen Certified. Certified products are evaluated by an independent third party to ensure full material disclosure and comprehensive ingredient hazard assessment. PFAS-free firefighting foams are proving effective at refineries and other oil and gas operations, including large-scale hydrocarbon fires.
Passage of HB 51 is critical; however, it is not enough to address this complex threat to public health. Many other states are taking the lead in passing comprehensive legislation on PFAS, including elimination of all non-essential uses of PFAS, enforceable and health protective drinking water standards, and other measures to protect communities. It is past time to regulate PFAS to protect the health of everyone who drinks water and eats fish.
We commend Sen. Jesse Kiehl, Rep. Stanley Wright, Rep. Will Stapp and other leaders in the Legislature who worked so hard to pass this important bill. Shame on you, Gov. Dunleavy. You have let us down. We call on legislators to use their power to override the veto of HB 51 and continue to work toward passing more comprehensive legislation to address the PFAS problem and to protect the health of Alaskans.
Pamela Miller is executive director and senior scientist for Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
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