Ship Creek flows through downtown Anchorage on Feb. 14. A study by Alaska Community Action on Toxics found the PFAS contaminants knows as “forever chemicals” are in this and other much-used waterways in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Ship Creek’s major source, like that in other areas, is likely airports, where PFAS-containing firefighting foams are used. A bill passed by the Alaska Legislature requires an end to the use of such foams by Jan. 1, with some exceptions. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
The Alaska Legislature has passed a bill requiring the end of use of firefighting foams containing substances known as “forever chemicals” because of their resistance to any natural degradation. Those substances, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been generally used by airport fire departments.
The PFAS bill requires a switch to alternative foams by Jan. 1, though it delays that requirement for oil facilities like the Trans-Alaska Pipelines System’s Valdez terminal.
Ultimately, it won full approval on Wednesday after a Senate PFAS bill was combined with another bill aimed at phasing out different types of environmentally damaging compounds, hydrofluorocarbons, which are commonly used as refrigerants.
The measure to which it was attached, House Bill 51, ensures that building codes around the state allow the use of HFC alternatives. In its original form, the bill passed the House on March 1. The Senate Finance Committee amended it by adding the entirety of the PFAS bill, and the full Senate passed the combined HFC-PFAS measure on Monday. This was followed by the House passing bill in the final hours of the regular legislative session.
But in Alaska, as in many other places in the world, the most direct source of PFAS contamination in the environment comes from firefighting foams used at airports. Drinking water sources at some sites have been contaminated by airport use of PFAS. Gustavus, the small and picturesque Southeast Alaska town that serves as the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, is a dramatic case. There, high levels of PFAS substances were found in well water, and the state embarked on a multiyear response program and distribution of bottled water.
That was the reason for zeroing in on firefighting foams, said PFAS-bill sponsor Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau.
“This bill is just focused on the main source,” Kiehl said on Wednesday, before the Legislature adjourned its regular session. “This is the biggest and most important step to take.”
The phaseout of HFCs as refrigerants is likewise seen as good for the environment by scientists and climate activists. HFCs are extremely potent greenhouse gases, thousands of times as powerful as carbon dioxide, though shorter lived.
The sponsor of House Bill 51, Rep. Stanley Wright, R-Anchorage, said it is part of needed “bold action to secure a sustainable future for Alaskans.”
“The use of hydrofluorocarbons has been linked to serious environmental problems. But it is not just about the environment. It’s also about creating jobs for Alaskans,” Wright said in House floor remarks leading to the 38-2 vote in favor of the combined HFC-PFAS measure. “The transition away from hydrofluorocarbons in the refrigerant industry will provide an opportunity for innovation and new technologies, ultimately leading to economic growth for Alaska.”
House Bill 51 was notably supported by the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning industry.
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