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Groundwater Contamination Spreads to South Davis Park; Fields ‘Safe’ to Use, Mayor Says

Erin Corneliussen/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

City and borough officials announced Thursday that another groundwater contamination hotspot has been found in the Fairbanks area, this time around South Davis Park. In response, borough Mayor Karl Kassel says the Parks and Rec Department will no longer use water from contaminated wells to irrigate the park’s heavily used sports fields.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation notified borough officials 10 days ago that tests results have shown the presence of poly- and perflourinated compounds in groundwater under South Davis Park. DEC says the contaminants, referred to by their abbreviations as PFOA and PFAS, probably came from the use of firefighting foam at the city’s Regional fire Training Center. And Kassel says it’s now spread from there to the park.

“The plume of contaminated water has gone as far as underneath our South Davis Park, where we have soccer fields and softball fields and a bunch of outdoor-recreation facilities,” he said.

Kassel says the Parks and Rec Department will no longer use wells that’ve been found to be contaminated with the chemical compounds. And he says borough officials are looking for other sources of water to irrigate the fields with.

“We don’t have any definitive resolution yet on exactly what we’re going to do,” he said. “We’re looking at options of using water trucks, (or) possibly trying to run long irrigation lines from city water systems outside of the park.”

The mayor says as far as can be determined, the playing fields are safe to use.

“We’re confident the facility is safe right now,” he said. “We haven’t irrigated since last summer, so I think with the rain we’ve had and the snow melt, et cetera, the ground is probably safe. We’re fairly confident in that.”

The water-soluble poly- and perflourinated compounds are considered emerging contaminants that have been linked to a number of health issues. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has established health advisories that include among other things limits on the amount of lifetime exposure to the chemicals. But concerns over the health effects and calls for action to address the problem have grown in recent years, both nationwide and locally.

The dog park is another of the several attractions at South Davis Park.

“The borough has been asleep at the switch,” says Dave Berrey, a Fairbanks resident who’s become involved in an effort to bring attention to the problem. “The city tried to make some response, but was half-hearted.”

Berrey lives just west of South Davis Park, and he’s a member of a local group of homeowners and others who are worried about the health impact of the chemicals.

“They’ve known about these problems,” he said, “they’ve refused to do anything about it for our neighborhood – I mean, for a long time.”

The firefighting-foam contaminants have been found in several areas down-gradient from the fire-training center. They've also been found in wells around Moose Creek, which is thought to have come from Eielson Air Force Base; on Fort Wainwright and in neighborhoods near Fairbanks International Airport. Berrey says it’s time for local leaders to push for solutions to the problem.

“The city should be enjoining with the borough and going after the real culprits, and that’s the manufacturers of these chemicals,” he said, “and get some help from our senators and have something done about it.”

Kassel says local officials have responded. The city has provided alternate sources of drinking water for people who live in areas affected by the contamination. The mayor says the borough is focused on the problem at the park, where numerous sports teams play throughout the summer.

“Our children can’t be without recreational activities out there,” he said. “That’s far too important of a facility for us. We have literally thousands of soccer players and hundreds of softball players that are affected by this.”

Kassel says local officials expect to have results of more tests on groundwater under the park in a couple of weeks.

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.