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Cold Bay still on bottled drinking water, 10 months after the wells tested high for 'forever chemicals'

State-provided drinking water is stored in a specially designed water depot to prevent it from freezing in winter.
Candace Nielsen
City of Cold Bay
State-provided drinking water is stored in a specially designed water depot to prevent it from freezing in winter.

About a year ago, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation tested Cold Bay’s water wells for PFAS, and the results came back well above the levels recommended for human consumption.

PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment or in the body. The synthetic compounds have been linked to adverse health effects like cancer and birth abnormalities.

Cold Bay closed the wells for drinking when the test results came back last June, and the Eastern Aleutian community has relied on state-provided bottled water ever since.

“We can only use our city water for doing laundry, taking showers,” said Lorie Pierce, the clerk for the city of around 50 residents. “If you're ingesting water, using it to cook or to drink, you need to use the bottled water that's being supplied.”

PFAS are often found in manufacturing because they’re extremely durable. They can repel water and heat, which makes them useful in things like carpet and upholstery, waterproof clothing, and nonstick cooking pans.

In Cold Bay, the chemicals likely leached into the water from a firefighting foam called Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) that the city’s airport uses. AFFF was first developed in the 1960s, and quickly became the gold standard for extinguishing fuel fires, a major hazard on runways.

Sammy Cummings is the PFAS program manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation’s statewide aviation division. She says that until a few years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration required airports that use AFFF to test the foam every year, typically by spraying it onto the runway.

“That’s to ensure, should an emergency event happen that requires the use of foams, that their systems are ready,” Cummings said.

Cummings says the FAA has required certain airports to use the foams since the 1970s, despite knowing AFFF contains two kinds of PFAS.

“People want to know why we are still using it. And that's because it's a federal requirement for airports to carry AFFF, because AFFF with PFAS is the best at what it does,” she said.

Cummings says the FAA is looking into alternatives and expects new requirements this year.

Cold Bay is not the first Alaska community tofind PFAS due to that firefighting foam. Gustavus, Yakutat and Dillingham haveexperienced similar situations. But that contamination has largely been confined to private wells, where there were alternative water sources.

“We are a unique community with this problem,” said Cold Bay Mayor Candace Nielsen. “Other communities have also found PFAS contamination in their drinking sources, but our community has been the only one in the state where we all are served off of the city well. Individuals don't have separate well systems.”

Ingesting contaminated water doesn’t automatically cause negative health outcomes. It can take decades for the compounds to build up in the body, making it difficult to link them to health problems.

Alaska Department of Health Toxicologist Andrew Cyr likens the risk of PFAS to UV exposure from the sun.

“Getting a sunburn [or] not using sunscreen doesn’t mean you will get skin cancer,” Cyr said. “But the more time you spend outside without sunscreen, and the more sunburns you get over your lifetime, certainly increases your risk of getting skin cancer.”

Cyr says it’s important to minimize exposure to PFAS, but he also recognizes the difficulties that some Alaskan communities can face.

“It can get challenging in rural Alaska where you may not have many alternatives to begin with,” he said.

Cold Bay’s lack of alternative water and the length of exposure for residents are part of what make its situation unique. The city’s only wells were drilled in 1993, which is alarming for someone like Mayor Nielsen who has spent most of her life in the community.

“Finding out about the PFAS has been scary for me, as someone who has been drinking the water for 20 years,” she said. “What potential issues can I have down the road, just because we didn't know until now?”

The DOT contracted with a third party to create a feasibility study for Cold Bay, which will help determine if they drill a new well or install a filtration system.

Representatives from the department did not provide an estimated timeline for the project, but say they will continue providing bottled water to Cold Bay until they find a permanent solution.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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