Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Defense bill clears House, Senate with PFAS protections

Last week’s signing of a collection of 2020 spending bills is bringing the growing issue of PFAS contamination to the forefront of national attention, drawing federal dollars and increased research to a topic sweeping Alaska communities and towns across the country.

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.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act — and several smaller funding bills passed within — was passed earlier this month by both the House and Senate and signed by President Donald Trump last week.

The package includes the Interior Environment Appropriations bill, among others, that features specific provisions tightening PFAS testing and treatment standards and requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to include PFAS on the list of unregulated contaminants to be monitored by public water systems.

Much of the contamination in Alaska is caused by firefighting foams used at airports and fire training sites.

The bill prohibits the use of aqueous film-forming firefighting foam after October 2024 and — effective immediately — prohibits the uncontrolled release of such foam as well as the use of such foam in training exercises at military installations.

In the Fairbanks area, PFAS levels above state pollution standards have been found to contaminate at least 283 private drinking water wells. The city of Fairbanks and North Pole as well as the Fairbanks North Star Borough have joined dozens of other cities and towns suing the manufacturers of a firefighting foam containing a toxic chemical that has contaminated lakes and groundwater.

PFAS are known as emerging contaminants, chemicals known to cause sickness in animals, but their exact health effects on humans aren’t well understood. In some areas of the state, residents have begun testing blood samples to increase studies and research on how the contaminants affect the body.

The funding package includes an amendment from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski that would require blood testing for PFAS during routine physical exams for military firefighters.

“I’m proud that my bill provides increases to EPA grant programs which support state-led clean up and remediation efforts of PFAS contaminated water sources, water systems and lands,” Murkowski said. “It’s so important that we do all that we can to minimize the risk of exposure to these emerging contaminants.”

The funding bills drew strong support from both of Alaska’s senators, each of whom have expressed concerns over PFAS contamination in the past.

“I’ve always said that there are no greater champions of our military than the people of Alaska,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said. “Our state sells itself. This year’s NDAA provides important resources for the military in Alaska and the Alaska communities that support it. The bill takes a number of important steps to address the impacts of PFAS exposure and contamination.”

Alaska’s PFAS regulations and testing standards have been a roller coaster over the last year with the state Department of Environmental Conservation rolling back its testing standards in the spring of 2018 — a decision that involved the testing of only two of the six PFAS related toxins the state previously studied — only to reinstate many of the older testing standards this fall. The most recent move increased state screening to testing for 18 of the compounds in an effort to remain in line with federal standards.

The DEC was unable to be reached for comment.

By:  Erin McGroarty
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner