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Nikiski water utility contaminated by unsafe levels of PFAS

Nikishka Bay Utility buildings in Nikiski.
Josie Oliva
Nikishka Bay Utilities buildings in Nikiski.

The drinking water from a Nikiski utility contains higher-than-safe levels of PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals.” Toxics researchers are sounding the alarm, but the utility and state regulators say they’re taking the appropriate action.

Pamela Miller is director and senior scientist with Alaska Community Action on Toxics. She studies PFAS contamination around the state and the health implications of the substance, which has grown in notoriety over the past several years.

Miller said she heard concerns from some Nikiski residents served by the Nikishka Bay Utilitiesutility, a water utility with about 80 customers in the Nikiski neighborhood near Nikiski Middle/High School. She did her own tests of water samples, which came back with high levels of PFAS.

“PFAS are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are highly dangerous, a very complex group of more than 12,000 chemicals that are used in many different types of products that we use in our homes, but also industrial applications,” Miller said. “And we think probably the source of contamination of Nikiski’s drinking water is fire-fighting foams. They’re called AFFFs and they’ve been used for fire training in and around Nikiski.”

The foams are commonly used in chemical and oil fires. They’re believed to be the most common source of PFAS contamination in the state.

Miller said the health effects of PFAS consumption are vast, even at low exposure levels.

“Including certain types of cancers, especially kidney and testicular cancer. Developmental and reproductive harm, immune system impairments and endocrine disorders like thyroid disease, metabolic conditions like high cholesterol and liver disease,” she said.

Miller co-authored an op-ed last month in The Peninsula Clarion, criticizing state regulators and the utility for not taking quicker action to inform consumers about the PFAS, and imploring them to provide safe drinking water sources immediately.

Dave Kranich directs Northern Utility Services, the Anchorage-based company that oversees Nikishka Bay. He said the utility is intimately aware of the issue and working on a solution.

Kranich said the utility tested the water for PFAS in February amid rising national concerns about the substance. They got the results back in June. Because of a national backlog and lack of testing facilities in Alaska, it can take two to three months for results. That test revealed high levels in the water, and Kranich reached out to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Josie Olivia
Nikishka Bay Utility's two groundwater wells are located between the old fire station and the high school in Nikiski.

Cindy Christian, the manager of DEC’s Drinking Water Program, said those first samples the utility tested were of untreated water, straight from the well. But Nikishka Bay already had a granulated activated charcoal treatment installed, which is the best treatment for PFAS.

“So we asked them to take a sample from their treated water,” Christian said. “Because that’s what people were actually drinking.”

Kranich said DEC advised him not to announce the results of the tests at this point.

“We both came to the conclusion that it would be inappropriate to tell people their water source is contaminated if in fact it isn’t,” he said.” We need to be giving people actual facts, not speculation.”

The utility took samples of the treated water in July and got results back in October.

“And it did remove some of it, but it didn’t remove enough for it to be below levels of concern,” Christian said.

At that point, Kranich and DEC issued a public notice to customers about PFAS in the water. Kranich said he suggested the utility buy filters to distribute to customers but most weren’t interested, because of the cost implications for the small utility.

Looking forward, Kranich said the utility has received preliminary approval for a $500,000 grant from the state that will allow them to mitigate the issue, and he hopes to have the problem solved in the next six to eight months. He said that will involve either finding a new source of water or determining a way to treat the current source that will remove PFAS.

Christian said, in the meantime, residents can get pitchers that filter out PFAS from drinking water. And DEC is hoping to work with the borough to set up a watering point in Nikiski, where residents could come to fill up jugs with fresh water.

Additionally, DEC has begun an investigation into the contamination at the site.

“We know the Nikishka Bay wells are contaminated. And so we’ll start a well search in that general area, and just keep expanding outward so that we can do a site characterization, and we can see hopefully where the PFAS is coming from, and how far the plume has expanded in that area,” she said.

Christian said DEC recently got results from a sample of the high school’s independent well, which were negative for the substance.

She agrees with Miller’s assessment that the likely source of contamination is the AFFF firefighting foam.

The foam came close to being banned in the state last year; a bill passed the legislature almost unanimously before being quietly vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in August. Miller said her organization's priority for the upcoming legislative session will be advocating that either that veto is overturned, or legislators reintroduce the bill.

“These are highly dangerous chemicals, and this should not be taken lightly. And it’s really appalling to me that our state, the state legislature, the governor, are not addressing this by preventing further harm, not providing safe water,” Miller said. “And Nikiski is not the only community in Alaska, there are many from Utqiagvik down through Southeast that have drinking water contamination.”

The regulation of PFAS is still evolving nationally. Christian with DEC said, although the substances are currently unregulated in the state, she expects new guidance will be released from the Environmental Protection Agency in early 2024.

“We take the regulations that the EPA promulgates and we adopt those by reference in the state,” she said. “So we do plan to adopt the PFAS regulation once it is adopted by the EPA.”

Kranich, the utility director, pushed back against Miller’s critiques of his response. He said PFAS is a growing concern, but that evolving research and expensive tests make it difficult to treat as an immediate threat. When it comes to acute contaminants like E. Coli and giardia, he said, Nikishka Bay tests on a monthly basis and would inform customers immediately.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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