Gustavus Residents Want Construction Project Halted at Airport due to High Contaminant Levels

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Residents of Gustavus town in Southeast Alaska want state agencies to conduct more tests for toxins and the city’s airport construction site. The state recently found the presence of a high level of forever chemicals at the construction site.

The state of Alaska authorities has already broken ground for the works of a federally funded airport upgrade, meaning the work was meant to start any time soon. However, the town’s residents are worried because an undocumented report showed PFAS contamination on a nearby asphalt site. The residents and a local advocacy group want the state to stop work until their safety demands have been met.

Kelly McLaughlin is among the concerned citizens who asked for a full stop to construction earlier this month. McLaughlin said:

“What we are asking for, basically, is just for the preventative measures to keep these PFAS from spreading further into the community.”

PFAS are a group of toxic chemicals found in firefighting foam that used to be required at defence sites — and airports like Gustavus’. They’re known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down over time. There’s evidence they’re linked to cancer, thyroid problems and other health effects.

Scrape Up and Grind the Asphalt

Finding PFAS in asphalt was a big surprise. Environmental regulators typically don’t ask for tests on the material since it’s not as absorbent as soil. But citizens were concerned since the agency planned to scrape up and grind the asphalt to make new material.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) consist of thousands of human-made chemicals that have many manufacturing and industrial applications. PFAS have been used over the last 65 years to make everyday products more resistant to stains, grease and water.

PFAS is used to keep food from sticking to cookware, make sofas and carpets resistant to stains, or make clothes and mattresses more waterproof. It’s found in cleaners, textiles, leather, paper, paints and wire insulation.

Strict Performance Specifications

PFAS are also critical components in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which is used to fight petroleum-based fires at aviation and manufacturing facilities. For decades, AFFF containing PFAS has been used extensively at airports throughout the world to protect passengers, crew and others. 

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that commercial airports train with, calibrate equipment, and use the best performing AFFF fire suppression systems. AFFF is needed to be used at airports and must be certified to meet strict performance specifications, including the U.S. Department of Defense Military Specifications. The chemical property of PFAS is what makes AFFF so effective at suppressing fires. In effect, AFFF forms a dense “foam blanket” that prevents oxygen from reaching the fire and smothers it.

Why Is PFAS Dangerous?

Health studies have shown PFAS present risks to human health. Exposure to PFAS exceeding certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects, and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).

PFAS are environmentally persistent and do not easily break down. These compounds are found globally in the environment, including water, soil, dust and the air. They bioaccumulate (accumulate in individual organisms) and biomagnify (accumulate in the food chain) and are consequently found in most human blood. PFAS do not readily degrade in the environment to constituents that are not PFAS.

PFAS can travel long distances, move through the soil, seep into groundwater, or be carried through the air. AFFF is released to the environment under various scenarios. At airports, AFFF is deployed intentionally for either training, testing and operational requirements or emergency response. It may also be accidentally released during delivery, transfer and storage. 

In the past, the hazards to human health and the environment were not as well-known as they are today, and there were few guidelines in the handling and management of AFFF and wastewater contaminated with foam. Wastewater contaminated with AFFF (e.g. firefighting runoff) was often treated like stormwater and was allowed to seep into the soil or was discharged as surface water runoff. 

Extent of Potential Environmental Impact

Storage tanks and drums containing AFFF sometimes leak and, in this case, can release PFAS to the subsurface. PFAS and PFAS contamination will migrate downward within the soil column. If the mass is great enough, it can migrate and contaminate groundwater. The contaminated groundwater can then reach sensitive receptors by being extracted by drinking water wells or recharging surface water features, such as rivers or creeks. In both instances, the PFAS become part of the food chain by being ingested by humans and wildlife.

The increase in regulatory attention to PFAS has led to rapidly evolving environmental requirements for airports. So, it stands to reason that airports across the country are being tested for PFAS contamination as it’s considered a likely contributor to PFAS contamination in the vicinity of the airport. Although the presence and extent of potential environmental impact depending on the nature and history of past AFFF use at each airport, the use of AFFF has been mandated at airports across the nation. Consequently, PFAS contamination is being found during environmental investigations at many of these airports.

That’s The Ultimate Goal

In the case of Gustavus, state regulators at the Department of Environmental Conservation threw out the project’s soil mitigation plan in response to the findings, and the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities took more asphalt samples.

The two agencies were scheduled to meet Monday morning to review the most recent test results and revise the soil mitigation plan. As of Monday afternoon, they had yet to comment on what was decided at their meeting or whether construction had been stopped. McLaughlin said she realizes DOT is in a tough spot but said she thinks a solution is possible.

“If we can all work together and share information and help each other, I think we can get to a point where PFAS could be remediated at the airport in tandem with this project, and then it’s a win across the board for everybody. And that’s the ultimate goal,” she said.

The State of Alaska joined a lawsuit against certain PFAS manufacturers earlier this month. Sen. Jessie Kiehl represents Gustavus and is among lawmakers sponsoring a bill to regulate the use of PFAS in firefighting foams in the state.