Dunleavy administration signs off on higher pollution levels in drinking water

The state Department of Environmental Conservation says that it will now measure pollution levels from only two PFAS chemicals instead of six, meaning that the state will accept higher pollution levels in drinking water.

Bad move by Jason Brune, the new commissioner. The state should enact the regulations instead of putting them on the shelf.

Making matters worse is that Alaska agencies are providing incomplete and conflicting information to the public. This technical and complicated topic deserves a thorough public discussion and more transparency by the state.

Brune announced last month to the Resource Development Council that he was going to stop proposed regulations on PFAS pollution that didn’t get finished during the Walker administration. With the Environmental Protection Agency taking its time to deal with PFAS pollution, Alaska and several other states saw a need for extra safeguards, concluding they couldn’t afford to wait on the EPA.

Brune does not see a need for extra safeguards. He wants to wait for the EPA to decide on the pollution levels.

The Dunleavy administration logic goes like this: Alaska relies on the EPA to ensure drinking water safety, so it should not get ahead of the feds with its own rules. The stricter rules amounted to state overreach, according to those who regularly complain about federal overreach.

What that leaves out is the strong possibility, recognized from New Jersey to California, that EPA is failing the public.

National groups that deal with water pollution say the EPA must do more now. Alaska is a member of he Environmental Council of the States, one of the organizations that signed a letter this week saying the EPA has been too slow.

“The action plan does not recognize that there are many more PFAS chemicals potentially impacting human health and the environment, not just PFOA and PFOS. We encourage EPA to go beyond PFOA and PFOS and beyond drinking water, and consider setting contaminant levels for other PFAS in various media,” the water quality groups wrote.

”Some states are already implementing or are in the process of developing regulatory standards for all media in the absence of enforceable federal standards,” the groups said.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler responded by criticizing the letter and saying the agency is acting as fast as is reasonable, the website insideepa.com said.

In Alaska, there hasn’t been enough information from the governor and his staff about why pollution levels deemed unsafe last fall are being redefined as safe.

The department didn’t announce its policy change to the general public with a press release, but it posted a new document on its website that describes the state’s blessing of higher pollution levels.

Much of the contamination in Alaska has been found near airports where a fire-fighting foam was used. The compounds have made their way into the ground water. Communities with drinking water impacts and contaminated sites identified so far include Fairbanks, North Pole, Eielson, Utqiagvik, Dillingham, Gustavus, Yakutat, Galena and King Salmon.

Last summer, DEC set levels at which action must be taken for six chemicals. “Based on review of available information, DEC considers the six PFAS compounds addressed in this memorandum to be hazardous substances under state law,” DEC said last summer.

“Several of these compounds have been found in groundwater and surface water used as drinking water. The department finds that action levels are necessary to consistently determine where drinking water treatment or alternative drinking water sources are necessary to ensure adequate protection of human health.”

The department has now erased that language from its technical memo about the adequate protection of human health and says that future tests will only cover two chemicals—PFOS and PFOA.

Rather than explain this pullback in English, DEC is trying to obfuscate with bureaucratese: “In 2018, ADEC set action levels for six PFAS compounds, including PFOS and PFOA. On April 9, 2019, ADEC published a revised Technical Memorandum on Action Levels for PFAS that supersedes the 2018 action levels memorandum and aligns the action levels with EPA’s Lifetime Health Advisory (LHA) levels for PFOS and PFOA.”

Translated, instead of testing for six chemicals, it will now test for two chemicals. “PFAS is an emerging issue and DEC policy is being updated to reflect new information,” DEC claims.

“The science on PFAS is evolving and state policy may change in the future to take new toxicity information or federal policies into account.”

What the department isn’t telling the public is that many state agencies across the country think the EPA is laggard in its duties and isn’t close to setting the national standard that Alaska will wait for.

Here are a couple of instances of conflicting information presented to the public. The three contaminated fish tested from Kimberly Lake near North Pole were found to have elevated levels of a chemical called PFNA, which is one of the chemicals the state will no longer test for.

The findings led the state to close that lake and another one to fishing, but the Department of Fish and Game press release failed to disclose that any contaminated fish had been found.

The state health department had more details on the fish, but did not mention that the state will stop testing for one of the chemicals found in Kimberly Lake.

The state health department also has PFAS information on its website that contradicts the DEC site.

“Historically, most research has been done on PFOS and PFOA. Recently, new scientific studies have become available that suggest other PFAS compounds (e.g., PFNA, PFHxS, and PFHpA) may also pose a health risk,” the health department says in a document updated in January, mentioning compounds the state will no longer test for.

“If the sum concentration of the five PFAS of concern in your drinking water is above the DEC action level of 70 ppt, immediately stop drinking the water and stop using it to prepare baby formula. Consider finding a clean water source for pets and other animals,” the heath department says.

Alaskans deserve some clear answers on this. In the meantime waiting for the EPA to act is the wrong move.

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