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State works to address remnants of chemical spill at National Guard facility in Bethel

An Alaska Army National Guard facility in Bethel. June 2024.
Gabby Salgado
An Alaska Army National Guard facility in Bethel. June 2024.

A malfunction of a fire-suppression system at the Alaska Army National Guard hangar in Bethel released a small amount of firefighting foam containing cancer-linked PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” on June 25, according to the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

“It's no secret that the PFAS chemical is something that has the potential to be hazardous,” said Alan Brown, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

PFAS are a class of chemicals that are found in industrial goods from shampoos to nonstick pans. In Alaska, much of the PFAS contamination in the state is centered around airports, where fire-suppression foams used to stop fuel fires have contaminated drinking water sources. It’s been linked to higher rates of cancer and other health problems.

Brown said that a malfunctioning firefighting system leaked around 10 gallons of foam in the Bethel aviation facility’s boiler room, hangar bay, and outside of the building on June 25. Some foam apparently also got into the building’s wastewater system and contaminated a Bethel Public Works pump truck.

Bethel’s acting city manager, Lori Strickler, said that the truck driver noticed foam coming from a valve after it had made its stop at the aviation facility.

“After we found out that there was a potential harmful substance in the truck, it was washed out three times at the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation]’s direction,” Strickler said. “And I believe that was done by armory staff or DEC staff, but all contained up at the armory. And then after that wash-out, [...]the truck was released back into service because we were told that the substance had subsided and that it was okay to release back into service and be on route.”

On June 27, Strickler said that the truck was pulled back out of service as an extra precaution, but the following day the state gave the go-ahead to resume business as usual. Strickler said that after consulting with state experts, the city isn’t concerned about contamination of the local wastewater lagoon.

“I do want to say that the city staff was very quick in their response to the DEC’s request,” Strickler said. “So high fives for the public works team for recognizing the substance in the truck and acting quickly to mitigate any further damage to the truck, or the lagoon, or themselves. They did an excellent job.”

Brown, with the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said the spill at the armory has been contained and cleaned with assistance from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs said that the risk to the local population or groundwater is “extremely low,” because of the swift cleanup and the location of the Guard aviation facility. Both Brown and Strickler said that there aren’t concerns about exposure of Guard members or Bethel’s pump truck driver.

But Brown said there are still concerns about the Bethel aviation facility’s water system.

“There's going to be some inconvenience for them because right now they're not able to use the water system in the facility,” Brown said. “But that's something that we can work around so that we can continue our training and continue to be available for the folks in Western Alaska as needed.”

Brown said that the National Guard will hire a PFAS-trained contractor to sample around the facility and determine if there’s residual contamination that needs to be cleaned up, but doesn’t yet have a timeline for that additional sampling or potential cleanup.

Corrected: July 1, 2024 at 11:12 AM AKDT
This article has been updated to correct the name of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.
Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.