Alaska in Brief

Bill setting rules for ‘forever chemicals’ advances in Alaska’s Legislature

By: - April 27, 2023 5:59 am

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, talks with other senators on March 8. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

There are hundreds of “PFAS sites” in Alaska—places where the state has documented contamination from a group of chemicals linked to ill health effects like cancer and high cholesterol. They’re called “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in human bodies and don’t break down in the environment. Many of the sites are at and around state-owned airports, where firefighting foams that contain the chemicals are used regularly in safety training.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, has proposed a bill that would replace contaminant-laden foams with a safer alternative. Senate Bill 67 is the first bill to regulate PFAS to make it to the Senate floor. Sen Kiehl has been working for five years on regulating PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

“Hopefully it will make it all the way through,” he said. “I have been in the Capitol long enough to not get past ‘diligent optimism’ until there’s ink on the governor’s signature line.”

The bill has bipartisan support in the Senate and a companion bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks.

Kiehl’s previous bills proposed setting stricter regulatory requirements for PFAS, but he said he doesn’t have to include those any longer—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed federal regulations that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation would follow.

But Kiehl says the bill’s passage is not guaranteed because of a $2.5 million price tag. That’s the one-time cost for disposing of the PFAS containing firefighting foams in the state’s rural communities—an estimated 5,280 gallons. The state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities also owns roughly 35,000 gallons of the foams across 15 airports, but the state is responsible for that disposal cost regardless of the bill.

“There’s a huge disposal price tag looming for the state, regardless of the bill,” Kiehl said. If that foam gets sprayed into the soil and groundwater, the cost of that cleanup would “make this 2.5 million look like a penny.”

The bill would regulate firefighting foams at airports, but not for the oil and gas industry. That’s because there isn’t an alternative firefighting foam that is as effective in quenching fires as the foams containing PFAS. Between the North Slope, pumps on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, and Valdez, the senator estimates that accounts for a lot of concentrate.

The bill stipulates that when an acceptable alternative foam is available, the state fire marshal will make a regulation to require its use.

The House version of the legislation, House Bill 166, is scheduled for a hearing in the House Labor and Commerce Committee on Friday.

Correction: The original version of the article misstated how the costs resulting from the bill would be spent. 

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Claire Stremple
Claire Stremple

Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau, Alaska. She got her start in public radio, first at KHNS in Haines and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. Her focus for the Beacon is education and criminal and social justice.