The PFAS Bill Vetoed by Dunleavy Administration, a Betrayal to Safe Drinking Water and Alaskans
BY samarys seguinot medina
Photo by Dr. Seguinot Medina
During the last day of the 2023 Alaska State Legislature session, community members and environmental advocacy groups were celebrating the passing of House Bill 51. The bill would have been an important piece of legislation that would phase out toxic Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals from firefighting foams in Alaska and provide the beginnings of much needed drinking water protection measures. Two weekends ago, the Dunleavy Administration vetoed the bill which had passed the Senate on a 20-0 vote, and then passed the House of Representatives 38-2 back in April.
PFAS, a class of more than 12,000 substances known as “forever chemicals”, are highly persistent and have been found in people and wildlife. Exposure to PFAS has been associated with health harms at exceptionally low levels, including cancers, liver and kidney damage, cardiovascular disease, and immune system suppression. In most Alaskan communities drinking water has been contaminated by the dispersive use of PFAS-based industrial firefighting foams used on airports and military bases. There are safe, effective, and economical alternatives to PFAS-based firefighting foams used at major airports, military installations, and oil and gas facilities around the world (ACAT 2023).
In the community of Gustavus, Alaska, Kelly McLaughlin’s household is among about a dozen that has been receiving state-supplied drinking water in five-gallon jugs since last fall. “It’s not a replacement for running water and it’s not a replacement for fresh water in the kitchen.” Like Kelly, many Alaskans are concerned about their food source and families, especially children’s and elders’ well-being.
Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) conducted independent water quality testing in 2021 and 2022 that showed PFAS contamination in all lakes tested in the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Anchorage lakes as well as in Ship Creek. These results show contamination in lakes used for swimming and fishing. The results also show contamination in Ship Creek downstream from Joint Base Elmendorf and Fort Richardson (JBER), an important urban ecosystem for fish, wildlife, and fishing.
Then, why veto a bill that will provide a good start to address such an important environmental injustice in Alaska? Some believe there is a mix of reasons starting with politics - public officials following chemical industry desires and money. Journalist Dermot Cole is on the quest to discover the real reasons for the veto. Cole said to Jacob Resneck from AK Public Media “I wanted to see how much of a political decision this was. A month later emails were received— completely redacted — between the governor’s top political staff and agency commissioners. The emails were mostly blank. But from the headers it was evident that the governor’s chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock, former head of Alaska’s Republican Party, was directing revisions for the state’s allowable PFAS limits in drinking water. Other key figures included Jeremy Price, deputy chief of staff and former head of the Alaska-chapter of Americans for Progress, a Koch Brothers-funded activism group” (Resneck/AK Public Media 2023.)
State legislatures around the country are taking the lead to address PFAS and protect the health of their residents because action at the federal level is too slow. State governments are taking more immediate legislative and regulatory action to phase out PFAS to prevent contamination in favor of safer alternatives. Thus far, 23 states have adopted 104 policies on PFAS, and another 114 policies are under consideration in 23 states (Safer States 2023.)
In a press release from ACAT, executive director and senior scientist, Pamela Miller said: “The governor’s unconscionable decision to veto this bill is a complete betrayal to the people of Alaska and will result in further harm to our waters, fish, wildlife, and the health of people throughout the state.” Miller added: “This is an egregious environmental injustice, especially given that the bill was supported by people from affected communities, firefighters, health care professionals, Tribes and Native organizations.”
Dr. Samarys Seguinot Medina is a Boricua from the Archipelago of Puerto Rico, a public health and environmental scientist, and a resident of Anchorage, Alaska.
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