State decision to relax drinking water pollution standards draws little notice

The Daily News-Miner reported some of what needs to said about the state decision to relax PFAS pollution standards for drinking water: ”Alaska has cut four chemicals from a list used to determine if a polluter needs to provide clean drinking water to neighbors.”

The story is a step in the right direction. Until now there has been no coverage in the state’s news organizations of this important policy shift because the Dunleavy administration has not issued a press release.

But the story in the newspaper Saturday doesn’t go far enough to explain that the policy change by the Department of Environmental Conservation means drinking water deemed unsafe last fall and summer will now be classified as safe.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has not made a clear public announcement about the impact of its decision—instead of setting water safety standards based on the sum total of five PFAS chemicals, it will now base the decision on the sum total of two PFAS chemicals. (There was a separate cleanup level for a sixth chemical.)

The department has hidden these important facts in a technical memo and failed to inform Alaskans about what’s going on and why.

The drinking water contamination has appeared in communities across Alaska near sites where fire-fighting foam was used—airports, military bases and fire training areas.

If pollution from five chemicals exceeded 70 parts per trillion last fall, that was enough to require an alternative source of drinking water. Now, pollution from two chemicals would have to exceed 70 parts per trillion to trigger the same action.

DEC Comissioner Jason Brune, who announced the plan to stop PFAS water regulations last month, probably doesn’t want to go into a contentious confirmation vote having to explain his new definition of safe water. His explanation so far, that the state doesn’t want to get ahead of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, is insufficient

Water experts in numerous states have complained that the EPA is doing as little as possible as slowly as possible.

The most recent press release about PFAS on the DEC website is one from last October, heralding the plan for “new, more protective cleanup levels” that went beyond those proposed by the EPA. There is no press release from Brune heralding the plan for “new, less protective cleanup levels.”

The only way for the general public to understand what Brune has done is to try to interpret a technical memo.

“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,” is how Brune’s department put it.

If the goal was to muddy the waters, Brune has succeeded.

The state will continue to provide drinking water to those who have been receiving it based on last fall’s definition of contaminated water. The News-Miner reports that 283 wells in the Fairbanks area have exceeded the standard.

But if new sources of PFAS contamination are discovered, drinking water will only be provided if the sum of the two PFAS chemicals tops 70 parts per trillion.

It will be impossible for the state to justify this double standard in court.

One of the chemicals the state will no longer look for was found in fish tested in Kimberly Lake in North Pole, a finding that led the Department of Fish and Game to close sports fishing in that lake.

Here is a map from Gustavus, showing water wells that exceeded the old standard with the sum of five chemicals. It’s not clear what the results would be based on two chemicals. Here is a map showing property north of Fairbanks International Airport with contamination.

There are also problems identified so far in North Pole, Eielson, Utqiagvik, Dillingham, Yakutat, Galena and King Salmon.

The conflicting and contradictory messages about this complex topic do not end with DEC.

The Department of Health and Social Services has a document on its website that says “new scientific studies have become available that suggest other PFAS compounds (e.g., PFNA, PFHxS, and PFHpA) may also pose a health risk.”

“Because of this new information, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued more stringent guidelines on PFAS in groundwater,” the health department said.

But the health department removed the first part of that sentence when it updated the document Friday. So instead of saying that the stricter standards were proposed “because of this new information,” the health department is trying to erase that from the public record.

Like Brune at DEC, health commissioner Adam Crum hasn’t made a public announcement of the decision to accept a higher pollution level.

The department now says, “DEC issued a new Technical Memorandum on PFAS in drinking water on 4/10/19, which supersedes their previous guidelines and states the following: ‘DEC will use the EPA LHA (PFOS+PFOA above 0.07 µg/L) as the Action Level. Any new testing for PFAS will be for PFOS and PFOA only.’”

Until Friday, the health department told Alaksans: “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.”

But now Crum’s department is telling Alaskans: “If the concentration of PFAS in your drinking water exceeds the DEC action level, immediately stop drinking the water and stop using it to prepare baby formula.”

There is big difference between those two sentences. Brune, Crum and other leaders of the Dunleavy administration have failed to justify the revision to Alaskans and the state’s news organizations have failed to report on it.

Meanwhile, as of this writing early Saturday, the state Department of Transportation has the old Walker administration advice on its PFAS warning page: “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. Do not use the contaminated water when cooking or washing food if the sum concentration of the five PFAS of concern is 70 ppt or more.”

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