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Energy & Environment

City Councilman Demands Plan to Recover Groundwater Contamination-Response Costs

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Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
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Fairbanks City Councilman David Pruhs has directed staff to draft a plan over the next 90 days on how the city will respond to the growing problem of groundwater contamination caused by chemical compounds in firefighting foam. Pruhs told City Attorney Paul Ewers Monday that the plan must include a way for the city to compensate homeowners who could be paying for the local response to the contamination through their property taxes.

Pruhs told Ewers during Monday’s council meeting that the city must come up with a plan on how it’ll recover at least some of the $3 million the city has spent over the past year-and-a-half trying to help homeowners affected by the growing groundwater-contamination problem.

“I would like to see in 90 days a recovery plan from the City Attorney on addressing this,” Pruhs said. “What we can do, what we can’t do, who we’re going after. It’s time to step this up. I want to see it in 90 days.”

Pruhs said Tuesday the plan would include discussion of how the city could seek compensation for homeowners who he says will be paying for the city’s response to the contamination through their property taxes. He says the plan should include a list of agencies, companies and other entities that have used the city’s Regional Fire Training Center. That’s where personnel trained on the use of fire-suppressing foam that contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, the chemical compounds that’ve contaminated groundwater near the fire-training center and elsewhere around Fairbanks.

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Credit Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
Most of the training involving use of firefighting foam that contained PFAS took place in a burn pit just north of the Regional Fire Training Center building.

“Are we going after 3M, who made the foam?” Pruhs said. “Are we requesting the State of Alaska to join us in a lawsuit against 3M? Are we looking at the parties who have made contributions to the pollution for reimbursement?”

Ewers says training with foam containing PFAS and related chemical compounds took place at the fire-training center for 30 years, ending in 2004.

Mayor Jim Matherly said Tuesday that Ewers has been working on a legal strategy to respond to the groundwater contamination. He says Ewers will try to finish the job in 90 days – but he adds it’s a very convoluted and complicated case.

“Obviously this takes time to contact everybody,” Matherly said. “It takes time to figure out who used what, who used it when. Just because they used the fire-training center doesn’t mean they used the fire pit, where the chemical was.

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Credit City of Fairbanks
The burn pit was lined with plastic, but firefighting foam was splashed outside the pit during training. That gave the PFAS and related chemical compounds a means to infiltrate groundwater.

The mayor says says the case would get even more complicated if the city decided to go after 3M, the Minnesota-based manufacturer that developed PFAS and helped promoted its wide use in many other household and industrial products.

“What City Attorney Ewers is trying to do is to get on the bandwagon of money to collect – perhaps from the manufacturer of the chemical,” Matherly said, “which could turn into a great big lawsuit because this was nationwide they’ve used this chemical.”

Other local and state governments that’ve been affected by PFAS contamination have sued 3M, including Minnesota, which recently won an 850-million-dollar settlement with the company. Matherly says Ewers also is considering seeking compensation from local agencies that used the fire-training center.

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Credit City of Fairbanks
City Councilman David Pruhs, left, and Mayor Jim Matherly

“His other alternative,” Matherly said, “is to contact the state, the university, some of the volunteer fire departments, and he’s done that, to see if they can share the cost.”

The mayor says the evolving strategy probably will require city property owners to pay up front, through the extra mill on their property tax bills, to cover the costs of assisting homeowners and pursuing lawsuits until the city can recover damages.

“If and when that happens, and we’re able to collect down the road,” he said, “we can re-adjust it back down. This is what we do as a city, when it comes to lawsuits.”

Matherly says the council probably will decide in the fall to consider whether and when to levy the additional mill to help pay for the contamination response.