This screenshot of an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation map of PFAS sites in Alaska shows that contamination from so-called “forever chemicals” is observable throughout the state. (Screenshot | Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)

This screenshot of an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation map of PFAS sites in Alaska shows that contamination from so-called “forever chemicals” is observable throughout the state. (Screenshot | Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)

Opinion: Alaska needs to do more to ensure safe drinking water

Most of all, we need action at the local, state, and federal levels.

  • By Kelly McLaughlin
  • Thursday, April 8, 2021 5:26pm
  • Opinion

By Kelly McLaughlin

As we look at the possibility of visitors returning to pristine Glacier Bay and Gustavus this year, we are still grappling with the not-so-little secret that Gustavus is not pristine. We have a major water contamination issue that many still haven’t heard of — PFAS.

Last year Sen. Jesse Kiehl and Rep. Sara Hannan introduced legislation that helped to fill critical gaps in how our Great State currently regulates PFAS chemicals. PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals that do not easily break down and have been widely used in industry and consumer products for decades. PFAS have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, infertility, high blood pressure, liver and kidney damage, and a host of other ailments. PFAS are key ingredients in firefighting foam that has long been used for fire suppression at airports across Alaska, where regular training with the foam has led to significant groundwater contamination.

The legislation introduced last year would have lowered the “action level” for key PFAS chemicals in drinking water in Alaska.In the past year, similar legislation was passed in many other states. These states are stepping up and taking action to protect residents and visitors in the absence of regulatory action at the federal level. Unfortunately, COVID-19 shut the Alaska legislature down early last session, and the considerable momentum that had quickly built for the bills died with the last legislative session. Now Kiehl and Hannan are preparing a similar set of PFAS bills to be introduced this session.It is time for Alaska to join the many other states across the nation who have passed stringent legislation to regulate these insidious chemicals.

Our legislators have the chance now to take a stand and protect the health of Alaskans in a way that will positively impact current and future generations. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they do not ever naturally break down. The PFAS that have contaminated groundwater around the Gustavus airport will eventually move further away from the airport (dilute), and our contamination levels may someday drop to below the current action level, but at current rates we will not have safe drinking water until at least year 2741, and PFAS will never truly biodegrade.

Meanwhile, in 2021, Gustavus is facing a major airport runway repaving project scheduled to begin this month, yet the asphalt set to be ground down and repurposed was only just last week finally tested for PFAS. Results are pending. We know that the dirt that lies under and around the asphalt is contaminated. So is the groundwater.

The construction planned involves grinding up this asphalt (creating potentially PFAS-laden dust), and rebatching it into new asphalt, then distributing this recycled product all over our runway. This plan has the potential to redistribute PFAS over a much wider area, potentially leading to further groundwater contamination and more poisoned drinking wells. This process could also release vapors while heating potentially PFAS-laden asphalt, putting construction crew and locals at undefined risk.

Maybe the DOT and FAA would like to put some of the $20 million runway repaving dollars toward cleaning up the AFFF they pushed Gustavus volunteers and DOT employees to use here for so many years. If they don’t, we’ll be steeped in it for the next 720 years.

I recently got a pupp. In assessing my responsibility in adopting a new dog,I had to consider if this was an ethical decision, since this puppy will be exposed to PFAS from my contaminated property, for the rest of his life. That’s not a decision I wanted to ever have to make for a puppy, let alone for my children.

What is clear is that we don’t have the answers, we need more testing, we need regulations, legislation, and most of all, we need action at the local, state and federal levels. Start by calling your state representatives, and ask them what they’re doing to protect you.

• Kelly McLaughlin chairs the Gustavus PFAS Action Coalition. She resides in Gustavus.Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

More in Opinion

Web
Have something to say?

Here’s how to add your voice to the conversation.

An array of stickers awaits voters on Election Day 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The case for keeping the parties from controlling our elections

Next month Alaskans will participate in the second open primary under the… Continue reading

(City and Borough of Juneau photo)
My Turn: ‘Ship-free Saturdays’ will nullify progress made toward controlling cruise ship impacts

Alaska’s wildness and communities are what draw people to this incredible part… Continue reading

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Letter: School board recalls a vote of no-confidence?

While four previous columns in the Empire have expressed concerns about efforts… Continue reading

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Tuesday. The court granted an unprecedented expansion of executive power, worrying the country’s allies. (Tierney L. Cross/The New York Times)
Opinion: A gift-wrapped Supreme Court decision for Republicans

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan gave us another example of his… Continue reading

The Assembly Room at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the original U.S. Constitutional Convention took place. (Antonie Taveneaux / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Opinion: Let’s celebrate our country this Fourth of July

On July 4, 1776, a year after the outbreak of the American… Continue reading

Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board members, staff and advisors meet Oct. 30, 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The concerns of reasonable Alaskans isn’t ‘noise’

It’s been two months since Alaska Landmine published leaked emails that suggest… Continue reading

Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom addresses the crowd during an inaugural celebration for her and Gov. Mike Dunleavy at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Jan. 20, 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The many truths Dahlstrom will deny

“Now more than ever, we need real conservative leadership in Washington to… Continue reading

A person departs Bartlett Regional Hospital on July 26, 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The importance of a strong, independent community hospital

Juneau’s city-owned Bartlett Regional Hospital (BRH) is in the news, presenting our… Continue reading

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Letter: Disappointed by JAHC director’s opposition to Ship-Free Saturdays

As a member of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, I was… Continue reading