Legislators approve phase-out of firefighting foams with 'forever chemicals'

For the second time in two years, the Alaska Legislature has passed a bill requiring a phase-out of firefighting foams with contaminants called “forever chemicals.”

The chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are commonly known as PFAS, have become notorious for their persistence and widespread presence in the environment.

Known for their resistance to flames and degradation, PFAS chemicals — which number in the thousands — have been used since the 1950s in a wide variety of products, from consumer goods like clothing and cookware to industrial materials like paints, sealants and drilling fluids.

The chemicals have spread over time into soils, waterways, drinking water supplies and people’s bodies. The chemicals have been linked to developmental delays in children, reproductive problems in adults, increased cancer risks, weakened immune systems and other health problems.

Firefighting foams, the subject of the bill passed by the legislature this month, Senate Bill 67, are the most common source of PFAS pollution in Alaska and in other U.S. states.

The bill requires a switch to PFAS-free foams by the start of 2025. It also authorizes a program to remove PFAS firefighting foams from villages with fewer than 2,000 people.

A bill last year that included similar provisions was vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Preventing more PFAS pollution, which has already proved costly to address, is the bill’s goal, said the sponsor, said Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl.

Numerous villages around the state in the past received special “Code Red” kits: portable firefighting units that included PFAS foams. Most of those kits are no longer operable, but the foams in them remain a hazard, Kiehl said.

There is firefighting foam containing PFAS stored at the Wrangell airport, Shannon McCarthy, Department of Transportation spokesperson, said in a May 23 email. It’s there “because we are still required by federal law” to have a backup supply for refill of the firefighting truck at the airport, she explained.

“We do not discharge (the foam) for any reason other than an emergency situation such as an aircraft fire. We are working on a statewide plan to convert our trucks to a non-PFAS containing firefighting foam,” McCarthy said.

The governor vetoed last year’s legislation, citing concerns about the state burden of removing PFAS foams from communities. This time around, Kiehl said, instead of having the state conduct the actual PFAS collection from rural villages and dispose of it, the state will reimburse rural communities for the costs, Kiehl said.

The statewide cost of the is estimated at $2.55 million.

Dunleavy has not yet taken a position on this year’s legislation, said a spokesperson.

Contamination of drinking water has been a concern nationally. The Environmental Protection Agency in April made final the nation’s first enforceable limits on six types of PFAS compounds.

Within Alaska, there are nearly 500 sites that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has identified as being contaminated with PFAS compounds. They range geographically from the old airstrip near it on the northern outskirts of Utqiagvik to the Ketchikan airport to Shemya Island, site of a former U.S. Air Force station, near the western tip of the Aleutians.

Airports have been common sources of PFAS pollution, as their firefighting units were required by the federal government to use PFAS-containing fire-suppression foams.

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024 that was signed into law on May 23 by President Joe Biden includes establishment of a $350 million fund to reimburse airports across the nation for costs of replacing PFAS-using firefighting equipment. The fund will also pay for disposal of PFAS chemicals.

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


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