Governor’s top staff directed Alaska’s rollback of PFAS regulations

The State of Alaska has been providing drinking water to households with wells contaminated by PFAS that’s linked to a fire suppressant foam used at state-owned airports. (Photo by George Hodan / publicdomainpictures.net)

The Dunleavy administration’s decision to defer to the EPA over safe levels of PFAS chemicals in drinking water came at the direction of the governor’s top aides. That’s according to dozens of redacted emails released following records requests.

In the community of Gustavus, Kelly McLaughlin’s household is among about a dozen that’s been receiving state-supplied drinking water in five gallon jugs since last fall.

“It’s not a replacement for running water and it’s not a replacement for fresh water in the kitchen,” she said in a recent telephone interview.

PFAS is a family of man-made chemicals that for decades were used in everything from non-stick frying pans to flame retardant foam to put out jet-fuel fires.

And it’s in the drinking water of at least nine communities in Alaska.

McLaughlin is troubled that her toddler drinks the bath water and is tall enough to reach the tap when she’s thirsty.

She’s too little to know better.

“I don’t know how to explain that…how do you say that? To a two year old?” she said, frustration in her voice. “‘You can’t taste it, but it’s bad water,’ I don’t know.”

The health effects of PFAS are still being understood. But numerous studies show links to cancer, reproductive problems and effects on the immune system.

Much of Alaska’s PFAS contamination is is linked to a flame retardant foam used by firefighters around airports and on military bases.

When PFAS was detected last fall in Gustavus, McLaughlin was critical of some of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s response.

“But there was still forward progress, we had a lot of interaction with DEC,” she said.

Leadership at state agencies changed following the election of Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Key agency appointments went to pro-industry figures promising less regulations.

McLaughlin says there’s been a shift in the posture of state agencies she deals with.

“There’s definitely just I mean, major lockdown,” she said. “People that I could call and ask information before, now have to send it up the chain-of-command and then I don’t even often get it.”

There’s been quite a bit of behind-the-scenes activity surrounding the state’s PFAS response. The state’s DEC quietly rolled back its PFAS regulations in April. It was testing for six compounds — now it only tests for two.

That brings Alaska in line with the Trump administration’s EPA approach to PFAS.

Critics raise questions whether this decision was based on science or politics. But DEC Commissioner Jason Brune defended the move to skeptical House lawmakers who had concerns about whether the EPA’s standards are strict enough.

I absolutely understand that concern,” Brune told the House Resources Committee in May. “I have staff that have a very similar concern as well. I also have staff that are of the opinion we should be staying, we should be going with what the EPA is doing.”

Brune’s reference to divided opinion among his staff followed the leak of an internal memo written by a senior state scientist objecting to the rollback.

“As a science-based agency, we must use a science-based approach to set standards,” wrote Sally Schlichting, a DEC policy analyst responsible for drafting regulations.

In her memo, she charged that the state was ignoring the advice of its own environmental and public health experts on PFAS.

So if not science — what was behind the change? It would take a public records request to shed light on the process.

Correspondence released following a public records request was heavily redacted but confirm the interest taken by governor’s top political staff in he state’s PFAS response.

“I wanted to see how much of a political decision this was,” journalist Dermot Cole said of his April filing with the governor’s office.

A month later he received a ream of emails — almost completely redacted — between the governor’s top political staff and agency commissioners.

The emails were mostly blank. But from the headers it was evident that the governor’s chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock, former head of Alaska’s Republican Party, was directing revisions for the state’s allowable PFAS limits in drinking water.

Other key figures included Jeremy Price, deputy chief of staff and former head of the Alaska-chapter of Americans for Progress, a Koch Brothers-funded activism group.

Gov. Dunleavy’s press secretary Matt Shuckerow says there isn’t anything unusual about regulations being reviewed by the governor’s top aides.

This is an issue that crosses multiple agencies and it’s imperative that we get as much input from commissioners, from their staff, to get the best advice and the best guidance,” Shuckerow said.

He wouldn’t address why the email contents were blanked out.

“There are privileges the administration is afforded that protect the integrity of the decision-making process and the ability of a leader to seek the counsel and advice of their most trusted advisors,” Angela Hull, the governor’s public records official, wrote in an email.

One of the few emails not redacted is a note from DEC Commissioner Jason Brune telling fellow commissioners he’d made revisions to his agency’s technical memo on PFAS at the direction of the governor’s chief of staff.

Cole sees it differently: he wrote about it on his blog.

I think it’s a mockery of the public process,” Cole said. “It may be a legal one, but it’s a mockery of the public process to release a bunch of emails that basically say ‘Hello,’ and ‘Goodbye,’ and everything else is kept secret.

To be clear, withholding the content of these emails is legal. Alaska’s public records law has broad exemptions for the “deliberative process.”

But back to the PFAS standards. The Dunleavy administration says it’s taking a cautious approach by adopting the federal guidelines until more information is available.

But public health advocates say the EPA’s PFAS action plan — favored by the Dunleavy administration — doesn’t deliver.

“There’s no explicit timeline, there’s no definitive actions,” David Andrews, a senior scientist with Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. “(EPA) essentially deferred decision making a little bit further down the line.”

That’s the view of 31 senators who co-cosponsored legislation to force the federal government’s hand. Lawmakers like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

The PFAS Action Act of 2019 would compel the federal government to declare all PFAS chemicals hazardous substances within a year.

“It really initiates the cleanup process and requires contaminated sites to be addressed,” Andrews said.

The EPA’s more cautious pace has the support of some industries that used PFAS in their manufacturing processes.

“Regulations should be based on sound science,” said Dan Grucza, an Atlanta-based attorney who tracks PFAS regulations for industrial clients across the nation.

He’s written about this on his law firm’s blog.

He says Alaska is wise to defer to the the federal government; a patchwork of laws could be more difficult to implement.

“A myriad of regulations could cause confusion and uncertainty for both industry and the public,” Grucza said.

Back in Gustavus, Kelly McLaughlin says she has jars of last year’s bear meat she’d unwittingly canned with PFAS-contaminated tap water.

“I mean, it’s poison, so I don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “It’s just sitting on my kitchen counter — still — I don’t know where to get rid of it.”