Dunleavy vetoes bill aimed at minimizing ‘forever chemicals’ use in Alaska

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has vetoed a bill that aimed to minimize the use and spill risk from harmful chemicals that exacerbate climate change and can poison drinking water.

The bill, originally introduced by Anchorage Republican Rep. Stanley Wright, would have allowed newly constructed buildings in Alaska to move away from using environmentally harmful chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are commonly used in air conditioning and refrigeration. The chemicals are known to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions significantly more than modern alternatives.

Numerous states have banned the use of HFCs in new construction. Wright’s bill wouldn’t have gone that far — it would have only allowed for Alaska building codes to accommodate HFC alternatives.

Wright’s original bill was amended in the final days of the legislative session to include a separate provision championed by Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, to ban the use of firefighting foams that contain polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, which can be highly toxic if they enter drinking water.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals,” meaning they don’t break down quickly. They are closely associated with a number of cancers, maternal health problems and other serious health risks. Previous studies have indicated PFAS are already present in Anchorage and Fairbanks waterways.

“In place after place after place in Alaska, we have a problem,” Kiehl told lawmakers at a committee hearing earlier this year, adding that it was “absolutely essential” to end the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams in most cases and offer an option to recall and dispose of such substances that were provided to rural villages.

That recall effort could cost as much as $2.5 million, according to a legislative analysis. That’s below the cost of a potential clean-up if a single PFAS spill or contamination were to occur, according to Kiehl.


PFAS use is still required by the Federal Aviation Administration in airports where jets land, but there is an existing plan in place to transition away from their use.

The bill, including both provisions championed by Wright and Kiehl, received broad support from the Legislature, with unanimous support in the Senate and support from 38 of the 40 House members. Kiehl’s measure had the support of firefighters and from Fairbanks Mayor David Pruhs, who told lawmakers that Fairbanks has already spent over $5 million to provide clean drinking water in parts of the city where water was polluted by PFAS from a firefighting training center.

In a letter signed Saturday, Dunleavy said he vetoed the bill because it “does not provide alternatives” to the use of PFAS for firefighting. If the current PFAS-containing chemicals are “removed from a community, residents will have no capabilities to fight a large-scale fire,” Dunleavy wrote.

“When balancing the environment and life and safety of Alaskans, this bill falls short by removing a lifesaving tool from the toolbox,” Dunleavy wrote.

Kiehl said in an interview on Tuesday that non-toxic firefighting alternatives to PFAS already exist outside of Alaska. However, purchasing them and distributing them to rural villages across the state would require a state appropriation — and Dunleavy has not indicated he is open to that possibility.

“But that really is separate from the risk that this poisonous stuff spills into the woods or the tundra, and poisons the drinking water,” said Kiehl.

Kiehl said Dunleavy declined his request to meet with him before the veto was finalized, after Kiehl had met with Dunleavy’s legislative director Laura Stidolph. Kiehl says he worked with members of Dunleavy’s administration from all relevant departments while he was crafting the bill, including the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Transportation.

The vast majority of so-called code red carts — PFAS-containing firefighting tools distributed by the state to 130 rural villages — no longer work, according to information provided by state officials. Additionally, the take-back mechanism for the carts in the bill is voluntary, meaning villages could keep them if they wanted to.

“Literally none of the governor’s concern about reduced public safety in rural Alaska is valid,” Kiehl said. “I would have loved to explain that to him, but my request for a meeting went utterly unanswered.”

Kiehl, who has worked in the Capitol for more than 20 years — first as a staffer and then as a lawmaker — said he has never been in a similar situation.

“I’ve never seen a governor hide from a meeting like this,” said Kiehl.

In response to several questions sent by email to the governor’s office, spokesman Jeff Turner said “there were multiple technical and legal issues with the bill.” He said officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Transportation recommended that Dunleavy veto the bill and that the departments “never reached a consensus” on the bill despite working with Kiehl.

“The issues with the bill could not be rectified during the session,” Turner said, adding that there would be “serious public safety issues” if the bill were to become law.

In a statement from the Department of Environmental Conservation, spokesperson Kelly Rawalt said that the bill “lacks feasibility in regard to public safety” by prohibiting the use of PFAS-containing firefighting substances in all cases except as required by federal law and in the oil and gas industry.

She said the take-back program “undermines public safety and the protection of our lands by stripping remote Alaskan communities of access to necessary safety equipment with no available alternative.” She also said that the take-back program could lead to environmental contamination while the materials are in transit.

Rawalt said firefighting material that doesn’t contain PFAS “does not yet exist in Alaska.”

She criticized the last-minute move by Kiehl to add his bill to Wright’s existing provision. Kiehl said that move was made as time was running out before the end of the legislative session, when his bill had already passed the Senate and was due for a hearing in the House.


Wright, who authored the original bill, did not immediately respond to a call and message seeking comment. In his veto letter, Dunleavy urged Wright to reintroduce his refrigerant-related legislation, citing no issues with it.

This is not the first time Dunleavy has vetoed a bill with broad support from lawmakers and stakeholders. The governor last month vetoed a bill intended to deregulate electric bike use that was similar to legislation that has already passed in 39 other states. Like Wright’s bill, that bill had near-unanimous support from the Legislature.

Lawmakers could have an opportunity to override the governor’s vetoes, but that would take support from 40 of the Legislature’s 60 members.

Previously, some lawmakers have raised concern that the governor’s vetoes are driven by more than just the bills themselves. Dunleavy has infrequently vetoed policy bills but has often used the veto pen to cut public spending from the budget adopted by lawmakers.

Both Fairbanks Democrat Ashley Carrick, who championed the electric bike bill, and Kiehl have been vocal in their criticism of Dunleavy’s decision to veto nearly $90 million in one-time public school funding earlier this summer.

“If there were a message to send, he’d say it in a conversation,” said Kiehl. “But all I know is there are objections that don’t hold water — much less PFAS foam. And a veto I can’t explain.”

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Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.