Gustavus calls for halt to state construction project after officials find more toxins at city airport

Gustavus Airport terminal (Mike Castleman/Creative Commons)

Concerned residents in the Southeast Alaska town of Gustavus pushed state agencies to do more testing for contaminants before embarking on major construction at the city’s airport. The state found more toxic “forever chemicals” at the site.

Now, the City of Gustavus and a local advocacy group want the state to stop work until their safety demands have been met.

The state had already broken ground on a big federally funded airport upgrade project when tests revealed previously undocumented PFAS contamination on asphalt at the site.

PFAS are a group of toxic chemicals found in firefighting foam which used to be required at defense sites — and airports like Gustavus’. They’re known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down over time. There’s evidence they’re linked to cancer, thyroid problems and other health effects.

Finding PFAS in asphalt was a big surprise. Environmental regulators typically don’t ask for tests on the material, since it’s not as absorbent as soil. But citizens were concerned since the agency planned to scrape up and grind the asphalt to make new material.

The state Department of Transportation, which leading the project, responded to their requests and found PFAS present in the sample it tested.

Kelly McLaughlin is among the concerned citizens who asked for a full stop to construction earlier this month.

“What we are asking for, basically, is just for the preventative measures to keep these PFAS from spreading further into the community,” McLaughlin said.

In 2018, she found out her well water was too contaminated to drink. Her chickens and their eggs tested positive for PFAS. It’s in the soil where she kept a garden.

She founded the Gustavus PFAS Action Coalition to organize on behalf of the community.

“I don’t wish that lack of sleep and amount of worrying and lack of access to everything that you have worked for … I don’t wish that on anybody. And that could come to many, many more people if the PFAS spread,” McLaughlin said.

The request was followed by a similar letter from the City of Gustavus. It asked the state to pump the brakes on the $20 million dollar upgrade at the airport, citing “grave concerns” with the agency’s “lack of response” on the ongoing project. The city asked for a series of public health safeguards before the agency continues work.

State regulators at the Department of Environmental Conservation threw out the project’s soil mitigation plan in response to the findings, and the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities took more asphalt samples.

The two agencies were scheduled to meet Monday morning to review the most recent test results and revise the soil mitigation plan. As of Monday afternoon, they had yet to comment on what was decided at their meeting or whether construction had been stopped.

McLaughlin said she realizes DOT is in a tough spot, but said she thinks a solution is possible.

“If we can all work together and share information and help each other, I think we can get to a point where PFAS could be remediated at the airport in tandem with this project, and then it’s a win across the board for everybody. And that’s the ultimate goal,” she said.

The State of Alaska joined a lawsuit against certain PFAS manufacturers earlier this month. Sen. Jessie Kiehl represents Gustavus and is among lawmakers sponsoring a bill to regulate the use of PFAS in firefighting foams in the state.