A wave of proposed rule changes affecting clean water for drinking and development during the past week are raising the murky question of whether the state or federal government is more worthy of trust by policymakers and people affected.
Part of the murkiness is the answer varies depending on specific situations and the person responding, not to mention the political winds — and thus the rules — at both the state and federal levels are subject to further change.
Advocates of cleaner drinking water won a major victory on Tuesday as the first-ever nationwide standards for “forever chemicals” commonly known by the acronym PFAS were proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, setting content levels at a point where they can barely be scientifically detected. Further addressing that issue is a bill by state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, restricting such chemicals for firefighting purposes that was heard Monday.
Kiehl was also part of a hearing on Friday involving another major proposed shakeup in clean water policy that would have the state take over permitting for wetlands development from the federal government. While the PFAS and permitting proposals involve two distinctly different policy areas related to clean water, he cited some common elements and concerns of both such as their cost/benefit to the state.
“I can articulate to you what we are are getting for the money” by altering the state’s PFAS rules, he said in an interview Friday. On the other hand, with the state’s proposed takeover of wetlands permitting “they couldn’t articulate any value for the cost. The feds pay 100% of it today. What I didn’t hear today is what Alaska is going to get if we pick up the bill.”
Another overlapping element is who’s in power at both levels of government is causing fluctuations in the rules. The state’s clean drinking water standards have varied over the years, for example, whereas at the federal level a different presidential administration in 2025 — specifically a Republican such as Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis replacing Democrat Joe Biden — could result in the new national PFAS standards being overturned the same year they’re scheduled to take effect.
“We didn’t used to see that kind of swing,” Kiehl said.
Adding to the mix of those clean water issues is a revived effort to get Canada to clean up its transboundary mining problems that state lawmakers and Alaska Native tribes in Southeast Alaska say are contaminating essential watersheds, which was the subject of much discussion between the parties involved last week. As with the controversy about the state taking over wetlands permitting, there were heated accusations Alaska’s regulatory officials aren’t handing their share of the duties responsibly.
The EPA’s proposal set a limit of four parts per trillion for two types of PFAS compounds, which agency officials say is the lowest level that can be reliably measured and thus enforced. The public has 60 days to comment on the proposal, which the EPA expects to enact by the end of the year.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation officials have stated they intend to enact the revised EPA standards when they are officially implemented and will have two years to do so.
“DEC applauds EPA’s leadership on this long-awaited rulemaking,” the state agency declared in a statement on its website after the proposed new PFAS rules were released Tuesday. “We are evaluating the impact this may have on Alaskan water systems and the next steps in protecting the health of Alaskans.”
Alaska has hundreds of sites with PFAS contamination, which in Southeast Alaska includes Juneau, Yakutat and Gustavus. Yakutat is the only community in the region where an alternative drinking water source hasn’t been officially established for all residents, although federal funds were recently approved for a water pipeline to resolve the issue for about 50 residences and some businesses.
Juneau’s three sites — two at the airport and one at Hagevig fire training center — aren’t considered a threat to drinking water after remediation measures, and additional monitoring wells to track the potential spread of PFAS are scheduled this year.
Gustavus also officially is providing alternative drinking water sources due to contamination found years ago at the airport that resulted in widespread problems, but some residents there said the risks to human and other health are far from resolved. Kelly McLaughlin, chair of the Gustavus PFAS Action Coalition that was formed in 2019, said the group’s final scheduled report was turned into the city council last year, but that’s hardly the final word on the issue.
“It’s not because there’s not a problem,” she said. “It’s because things just take so damn long in a bureaucracy. We’re just repeating things over and over.”
McLaughlin said her home and those in the surrounding area all still have elevated levels of PFAS contamination. That’s resulted in remedial measures such as an 8,000-gallon cistern for rainwater McLaughlin’s family had used for drinking and bathing, which doesn’t resolve the issues involving gardens, livestock — and the contaminated sites themselves.
“There are no guidelines, so it’s a personal decision,” she said, “I eat mine because at one point I made a decision my mental health was suffering more than I was comfortable with.”
Kiehl, who during previous years has introduced bills seeking broad PFAS regulatory changes, this year limited his proposal to firefighting measures in anticipation of the EPA’s revised rules. It generally bans firefighting with chemicals that contain PFAS foam, with exceptions for certain oil and gas industry situations as well as rural communities that use small “load carts” to store firefighting chemicals.
Questionable developments in 404 permitting
DEC’s expressed hope of taking over wetlands permitting from the federal government — what are officially known as “Clean Water Act Section 404” permits — ran into rough waters during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Friday.
The state agency, in a feasibility study prepared during the past year with the Legislature’s approval, claims taking over the the permitting process will allow more flexibility that benefits both businesses and the environment in “Alaska’s unique conditions.” Most construction, resource and community development projects require such 404 permits, and regulators hope the state could take over up to 75% of them beginning in 2024.
Such a takeover would require about 32 new employees and cost roughly $5 million a year, according to Randy Bates, director of the Division of Water for the DEC, who presented the study’s results during the hearing.
But both of those figures were challenged by committee members, including Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who co-chairs the committee and is overseeing a review of next year’s proposed state budget that already is facing a sizeable deficit. He noted Florida, one of the few states that has taken over such permitting and which has far less wetlands area than Alaska, has about 400 employees involved in the process.
“I want to make sure we don’t inadvertently go down the road where this is a fraction of what it’s going to cost with no net benefit,” he said.
Bates said the number of Florida employees is misleading because they do other regulatory work, while Alaska’s would work exclusively on the 404 permits.
As for the annual cost, Bates said he hopes to regain some by imposing fees on developers, and several states are working on proposals that would secure federal funds to pay a portion.
But concerns about the effectiveness of state regulators was questioned by some committee members — and not simply because they might be too lax in trying to speed up approval of development projects. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, said he’s concerned the state is costing fish hatcheries millions of dollars by imposing standards stricter than federal requirements.
“The same concerns are multiplied tenfold if we give you 404 and you do the same actions,” Hoffman said. “You say one thing, but when I talk to the people of my district I hear something completely different. You are not working with them. You are working against them.”
Bates said there are federal standards for a range of pollutants including aluminum, mercury and PFAS chemicals, which in some instances the state believes should be adjusted due to area- or industry-specific factors.
“In this particular case you’ve got hatcheries that are producing fish and they are in need of high-quality water to produce those fish,” he said. “There is an impact to the water they use and when they do discharge it that water needs to be treated to a level that is non-impactful for those downstream who use it.”
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org