State dials back PFAS response standard

PFAS levels around Gustavus. (Image courtesy of the Alaska Department of Transportation)

The state has rolled back a stricter PFAS drinking water contamination standard, and suspended development of new regulations for the chemicals. The changes implemented by the administration of Governor Mike Dunleavy come despite growing concern about health impacts of the perfluorinated compounds in firefighting foams, which have contaminated groundwater at several locations in Alaska.

Last fall, the State Department of Environmental Conservation announced it would consider the combined total of five common PFAS compounds when determining if water exceeds an Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. It meant more waters considered unsafe, and more people provided alternative drinking water, but the stricter standard, and the associated development of new PFAS regulations, didn’t last long.

“We have decided to pull that reg package and we’re going to follow the lead of the EPA,” said DEC Commissioner appointee Jason Brune at a Resource Development Council event about PFAS in March.

Brune pointed to the federal agency’s February announcement of a PFAS Action Plan, which DEC Director of Spill Prevention and Response Denise Koch promises a decision on a nationwide maximum contaminant level “in this calendar year, 2019.”

“So since EPA has taken a leadership role on this issue, we decided to halt for a moment,” Koch.

Koch says for the meantime, Alaska has reverted back to the EPA’s current standard.

”Their lifetime health advisory, which is the sum of two PFAS chemicals: PFOS and PFOA — at the 70 part per trillion level,” Koch said.

Pam Miller is executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, which has been pushing for the state to set a stricter PFAS drinking water standard.

“70 parts per trillion is, we know now, much too high,” Miller said.

Miller cites a growing body of research about the chemicals.

”The Centers for Disease Control found health impacts at the low part per trillion level,” Miller said. “We know for instance that there are immune effects on children at one part per trillion.”

Miller points to several other states which have set more restrictive PFAS drinking water standards. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is in the midst of a large scale human health PFAS exposure study, and asked why Alaska would not err on the side of caution, the DEC’s Koch points to unanswered questions.

”There’s a lot of uncertainty on this issue of PFAS,” Koch said. “And that’s why states have individually been grappling with this issue.”

Koch notes that any Alaska property owners who began getting alternative drinking while the state had the stricter PFAS standard in effect, will continue to be receive it, and that only new sites identified as potentially contaminated will be considered under the currently less stringent federal standard.