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Airport to Connect Homes to College Utilities In Response to Groundwater Contamination

Tim Ellis/KUAC

More than 60 homes around Fairbanks International Airport will be hooked-up to the College Utilities water system this summer, because area residents can’t get their drinking water from wells anymore due to groundwater contamination. But about 50 homeowners and others who showed up at a meeting Tuesday say they still have a lot of questions about the project – and the contamination.

Representatives of an engineering firm hired by Fairbanks International say residents of a neighborhood west of the airport and east of the Chena River will have to put up with a lot of construction work this summer while contractors lay pipe to bring in drinking water.

“Definitely there’ll be traffic control, but everybody will still be able to access their property,” says Reggie Dallaire with PDC Engineers.

Dallaire says the project calls for installation of a mile-and-a-half of main water line to tie into College Utilities’ existing system, along with more than two miles of smaller service lines that’ll bring water from the main into at least 63 homes in the area where groundwater sampling shows extensive contamination by chemical compounds that were used at the airport.

“Now, it may be temporary access might have to be provided,” he said, “Or they may not be able to pull into their driveway, but if they’re able to park over on the other side and then be given a temporary footbridge over an open trench or whatever.”

Some of the roomful of residents who showed up for the second meeting on the airport’s response to the contamination say they’re glad the state-owned airport will be paying the bill to connect their homes to the College Utilities system. Gene Newman says it would cost him about $33,000 for the 400 feet of pipe needed to connect his home. But he, like many at the meeting, still has a lot of questions about the project.

“We don’t know yet if we’re still going to be able to use our existing wells,” he said, “because I’ve got to water lawn and I don’t even know if I’ll even be able to garden yet.”

Newman says a test of his well water showed it contained more than 250 parts per trillion of perfluoroalkyl substances, which are chemical compounds known by the acronym PFAS. Not much is known about PFAS, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency says long-time exposure to more than 70 parts per trillion will harm human health. Newman says he’s already taking medications for some of the health problems that experts believe PFAS can bring on.  

“I mean, I’m on blood-pressure medicine, I’m on cholesterol medicine and I got thyroid medicine,” he said. “Now, I just assumed it was hereditary. But maybe it’s not.”

Airport manager Jeff Roach says he and his staff have been trying to address those kinds of concerns ever since they learned in October that PFAS from firefighting foam used in its Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Training Areas had infiltrated the area’s groundwater. Similar contamination has been found in groundwater around Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright.

“We’re looking at taking care of the public,” Roach said. “We want to provide as much information as we can about what the plans are, and keep them informed about what they can do to prepare for the upcoming projects that’s we’re working on.”

Roach says the airport has provided bottled drinking water to residents of the affected area and is now planning the water-system expansion. And while that work is under way, specialists with R&M Consultants will study the size of the contamination and its movement toward the Chena River. They’ll report their findings in the fall and propose long-term monitoring and mitigation strategies. But Robert Burgess, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s project manager, couldn’t say much about when or how the contamination could be cleaned-up.

“So far, there aren’t very many remedial methods available for groundwater that are practicable,” he said.

Burgess says it’ll likely take years for any cleanup of the contamination to begin.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.