In this file photo from April 13, 2017, firefighters spray foam during a drill at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center. The city is sampling groundwater and soil, looking for chemicals in the environment that are mainly associated with the use of firefighting foams used in training activities, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

In this file photo from April 13, 2017, firefighters spray foam during a drill at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center. The city is sampling groundwater and soil, looking for chemicals in the environment that are mainly associated with the use of firefighting foams used in training activities, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

H2-Oh No! Juneau tests groundwater, soil for chemicals

City: Drinking water impact is not expected in Juneau

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.

Airport Rescue Firefighter Jason Tarver flushes foam from a airport rescue firefighting engine at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center on Thursday, April 13, 2017.

Airport Rescue Firefighter Jason Tarver flushes foam from a airport rescue firefighting engine at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center on Thursday, April 13, 2017.

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.”

This image from a packet from a February 2019 public meeting with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and Department of Health and Social Services in Dillingham shows locations around the country that have been contaminated by a group of chemicals associated with firefighting foam.

This image from a packet from a February 2019 public meeting with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and Department of Health and Social Services in Dillingham shows locations around the country that have been contaminated by a group of chemicals associated with firefighting foam.

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.

[Former Juneauite and “bathroom bill” documentary are coming to town]

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.

This image from a packet from a February 2019 public meeting with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and Department of Health and Social Services in Dillingham shows locations around the state that have been contaminated by a group of chemicals associated with firefighting foam.

This image from a packet from a February 2019 public meeting with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and Department of Health and Social Services in Dillingham shows locations around the state that have been contaminated by a group of chemicals associated with firefighting foam.

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.

Airport Rescue Firefighter Jason Tarver takes a foam sample as southeast firefighters update their airport rescue firefighting skills at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center on Thursday, April 13, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)                                Airport Rescue Firefighter Jason Tarver takes a foam sample as southeast firefighters update their airport rescue firefighting skills at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center on Thursday, April 13, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Airport Rescue Firefighter Jason Tarver takes a foam sample as southeast firefighters update their airport rescue firefighting skills at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center on Thursday, April 13, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File) Airport Rescue Firefighter Jason Tarver takes a foam sample as southeast firefighters update their airport rescue firefighting skills at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center on Thursday, April 13, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

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’

[Hold music leaves artists hanging by the telephone]

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 bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.


More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of July 20

Here’s what to expect this week.

A U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka helicopter hovers over Sitka Sound during routine hoist training. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Lt. Cmdr Wryan Webb)
Yakutat-bound charter flight missing from Juneau

Flight departed from Juneau on Saturday with three people aboard, according to U.S. Coast Guard.

President Biden at the White House on July 3. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden drops out of race, scrambling the campaign for the White House

Withdraws under pressure from fellow Democrats; endorses Vice President Kamala Harris to take on Trump.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, July 18, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Buttons on display at a campaign event Monday, July 8, 2024, in Juneau, urge supporters to vote against Ballot Measure 2, the repeal of Alaska’s current election system. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Ranked-choice repeal measure awaits signature count after Alaska judge’s ruling

Signatures must be recounted after judge disqualifies almost 3,000 names, citing state law violations.

The offices of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development in Juneau are seen on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska demographers predict population drop, a switch from prior forecasts

For decades, state officials have forecast major population rises, but those haven’t come to pass.

Neil Steininger, former director of the state Office of Management and Budget, testifies before the House Finance Committee at the Alaska State Capitol in January of 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Neil Steininger, former budget director for Gov. Dunleavy, seeking District 1 Juneau Assembly seat

Downtown resident unopposed so far for open seat; deadline to file for local races is Monday.

A mother bear and a cub try to get into a trash can on a downtown street on July 2, 2024. Two male bears were euthanized in a different part of downtown Juneau on Wednesday because they were acting aggressively near garbage cans, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Two black bears in downtown Juneau euthanized due to aggressive behavior around people

Exposed garbage, people insistent on approaching bears contribute to situation, official says

Most Read