Bill would ban firefighting foam containing 'forever chemicals'

The Alaska Legislature has passed a bill requiring an end to the use of firefighting foams containing substances known as “forever chemicals” — called that because of their resistance to any natural degradation.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been commonly used at airports for their effectiveness in smothering burning fuel.

The PFAS bill requires a switch to alternative firefighting foams by Jan. 1. The bill goes to the governor for his signature or veto.

The measure won approval on the last day of the regular legislative session May 17 after a Senate PFAS bill was combined with a separate House bill aimed at phasing out different types of environmentally damaging compounds, hydrofluorocarbons, which are commonly used as refrigerants.

The combined measure, House Bill 51, ensures that building codes around the state allow the use of hydrofluorocarbons alternatives.

PFAS compounds have been used in a wide variety of commercial and industrial products, including cookware, textiles, packaging, engine lubricants and personal-care products like dental floss. Introduced in the 1950s for their powerful fire resistance, the compounds are now commonplace in the environment. Studies have shown that they are detectable in the bodies of most Americans, though levels have dropped significantly in recent years as PFAS manufacturing and use has declined, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

In Alaska, as in many other places in the world, the most direct source of PFAS contamination in the soil and water comes from firefighting foams used at airports. Drinking water sources at some sites have been contaminated by airport use of PFAS.

Gustavus is a dramatic case. There, high levels of PFAS substances were found in well water, and the state embarked on a multiyear response and distribution of bottled water to residents.

High levels of contamination also have been found around the Fairbanks airport.

That was the reason for zeroing in on firefighting foams, said PFAS-bill sponsor Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl.

“This isn’t a cleanup bill. This is a no-new-spills bill,” he said. Kiehl has been working for five years on legislation to regulate PFAS.

There are an estimated 5,280 gallons of the firefighting foam at the state’s smaller, rural airports. The Department of Transportation also owns roughly 35,000 gallons of the foam stored at 15 larger airports, including all of the jet-capable state airports in Southeast, according to Kiehl’s office.

The senator said he believes cleanup issues will be addressed by the first-ever nationwide standards that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to enact this year.

The state is looking for a non-PFAS firefighting foam for airport use, but is “in a holding pattern until new federal regulations on the subject are adopted,” Transportation Department spokesman Sam Dapcevich said last week.

The department, which owns and maintains the Wrangell airport, has a supply of the firefighting chemical at the airport for use in emergencies, Dapcevich said.

Other states have gone further with PFAS controls. Nearly a dozen states have banned food packaging containing the chemicals , for example, and California requires notices about cookware containing some of them.

The phaseout of hydrofluorocarbons as refrigerants is likewise seen as good for the environment by scientists and climate activists. HFCs are extremely potent greenhouse gases, thousands of times as powerful as carbon dioxide, though shorter lived.

House Bill 51 was notably supported by the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry.

The Sentinel contributed reporting to this story. The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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