Testing is underway in Juneau to determine whether land and water in the capital city is contaminated with the same cancer-linked chemicals that were found in groundwater and soil in Yakutat, Gustavus and Fairbanks among other locations.
While results from ongoing sampling will take at least a month to potentially confirm the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Juneau, city officials said results are unlikely to lead to drinking water problems like the ones elsewhere in the state that require shipments of clean water.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals, that are persistent in the environment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The problematic compounds are in many products and have been since the ’40s, according to the EPA. Most people around the state and country have been exposed to them at some point.
“[The] short answer is that like many municipalities we also used PFAS,” stated City Manager Rorie Watt in an email to the Juneau Empire. “However, unlike the communities that are having issues, we have a very extensive public drinking water system, very few people in Juneau are on groundwater wells, and none near the areas where PFAS were used.”
Juneau’s drinking water comes from Gold and Salmon creeks, Watt stated, and the areas where PFAS-containing products were used were at Juneau International Airport and at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center.
PFAS have caused tumors in animals, and they have been linked to low birth weights, negative effects on the immune system, increased risk of cancer, increased cholesterol levels, lower fertility levels and thyroid disruption, according to the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Exposure to PFAS through showering or eating vegetables that may have been grown in a PFAS-contaminated area does not present a significant health risk, according to State Action on PFAS documents.
The EPA’s health advisory for PFAS in water is 70 parts per trillion, an amount which the Associated Press has described as three drops in an Olympic-sized pool.
The good, and the bad stuff
In Alaska, the chemicals’ presence in the environment is mainly associated with the use of firefighting foams used in training activities, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. After use, chemicals then leach into groundwater.
DEC public information officer Laura Achee said multiple key DEC employees are out of the office this week and were unavailable to answer questions.
Capital City Fire/Rescue Assistant Chief Ed Quinto said when reached by phone that the problem-causing foam is not used by CCFR when responding to residential calls.
Quinto said there’s a big distinction between Class A foam, which the department generally uses when responding to a call, and Class B foam, which is associated with the release of PFAS.
“The one we’ve been using is the good stuff,” Quinto said. “Class B foam is the one everyone is worried about. Class A is basically dish soap.”
However, they may have been used in the past, Quinto said. Foams that could cause problems are still required by the Federal Aviation Administration to be tested at airports.
In light of that, testing for PFAS is ongoing at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center, said Lori Sowa, project manager for City and Borough of Juneau, during a phone interview. It will also be done at Juneau International Airport.
Sowa said Cox Environmental, a Juneau-based business that provides environmental services including exposure pathway analysis and environmental sampling, has been contracted to handle the planning, sampling and analysis work at the training center for $19,218 from CCFR’s operational budget.
“The sampling that we’re doing is collection of both soil and ground water samples at the site,” Sowa said. “Once those results come in and they’ve been evaluated, they’ll be sent to the state.”
Sowa said results would be expected in about a month.
What happens after the results are received is dependent on the level of contamination and the potential risk of exposure.
“There’s a lot of cases where nothing’s physically done,” Sowa said.
It could be that what makes the most sense is monitoring the area or implementing some sort of institutional control, such as paving over an area of contaminated soil or banning groundwater wells in the area.
However, Sowa did not wish to speculate what will be done in this exact instance and said the DEC would be a better source of such information.
“I feel fortunate that this is not an area that’s used for drinking water,” Sowa said. “We don’t anticipate future use of groundwater for drinking water in this area.”
‘It’s not just us’
Gustavus Mayor Calvin Casipit is living through the exact scenario Juneau expects to avoid.
In Gustavus, the groundwater is contaminated, and there is no municipal water system, Casipit said.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities was alerted in July 2018 to concentrations of PFAS in the groundwater at Gustavus airport, which was subsequently confirmed via sampling, according to the DOTPF.
“It’s a really complicated issue here in Gustavus,” he said. “Some of the contamination is above action levels and some is below. There’s a feeling in the community that any contamination is too much.”
Casipit said people with water that tested above the action level threshold are receiving clean water from the state, and the city of about 500 is taking steps to establish a municipal water system.
It’s less than ideal, Casipit said.
“Now, what do I tell people that are below the action level, but still have PFAS in their water?” he asked.
A more positive development highlighted by Casipit, is that while Gustavus Public School tested below action levels, it is being filtered by equipment provided by the U.S. National Park Service because of proximity to Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve.
Casipit said he wanted to thank Superintendent Philip Hooge for the effort.
“That really made the city feel better,” Casipit said.
He said he’s interested to see how PFAS testing and remediation is handled in the coming months and years, and in the meantime the city will continue pursuing ways to provide clean drinking water to residents.
“This is more than just us, this is more than just Alaska, it’s the whole world probably,” Casipit said.
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.