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EPA Research

EPA Research in Alaska

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Challenge: Contaminated site due to PFAS issues at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson
Resource: Technical support for site contamination in collaboration with the U.S. Air Force
Partner: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)
“EPA’s collaboration with the ADEC and the Air Force on PFAS sampling and analytical methods is key to ensuring valid, defensible data are collected on these emerging contaminants that are being found in soil, groundwater and drinking water in Alaska and elsewhere across the country. Extremely low concentrations, in the parts per trillion levels, in drinking water may pose unacceptable health risks, thus, rigorous sampling and analytical methods are critical in ensuring people have clean drinking water.”
– ADEC Commissioner Larry Hartig

With increased concern about the risk of per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water, it is important to identify the source(s) of the contamination and manage/remediate the risk. To date, PFAS contamination has been observed at landfills, primary and secondary PFAS-related manufacturing sites, wastewater treatment plants, and emergency response and training sites where aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) were used for firefighting. The U.S. Department of Defense has identified hundreds of sites with potential AFFF contamination.

EPA ORD, in coordination with Region 10 (Pacific Northwest), is providing technical support for PFAS site characterization at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER) in Anchorage. ORD previously provided a review of an Air Force work plan to collect groundwater and soil samples at JBER for PFAS analysis. ORD scientists will observe the collection of groundwater samples by an Air Force contractor, visit locations where samples have been collected, and collect wastewater and creek samples. ORD scientists will analyze splits of some samples to evaluate the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) analytical PFAS methods (ASTM 7968-14 and ASTM 7979-15). This will provide an opportunity to apply the ASTM methods to additional environmental matrices analyzed to date, as well as analyze samples for PFAS precursors. The resulting data from the Air Force and ORD can be used to decide further site characterization priorities. 

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Challenge: Support the environmental management and public use of U.S. lakes and reservoirs by providing a capability of detecting and quantifying cyanobacteria harmful algal blooms (HABs) using satellite data records
Resource: Provide satellite derived measures of cyanobacteria, software and training in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Partner: AK, AR, CA, CO, FL, IA, ID, KS, KY, LA, MO, ND, NY, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, UT, VT, WA, WI and WY state environmental and/or health agencies
“The images we've been receiving through the CyAN project have been tremendously helpful to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Division of Water Quality (DWQ), providing the foundation for a wide range of useful outputs. It allows Utah DEQ/DWQ to better target field sampling and more efficiently use our limited resources to protect public health. Finally, images are easily shared with response agencies as a useful visual communication aid.”
– Utah DEQ/DWQ Biological Assessment and HAB Programs Coordinator Benjamin M. Holcomb
Cyanobacteria blooms are an environmental and human health problem across the U.S. They are capable of producing toxins, odors, and surface scum that threaten the health of humans and animals, the quality of drinking water supplies, and the ecosystems in which they develop. Scientists at EPA are part of a team of specialists using remote sensing data to improve cyanobacteria detection methods. Improving the detection process would help state environmental and health agencies better determine whether to post public advisories to protect aquatic and human health.
The Cyanobacteria Assessment Network (CyAN) is a multiagency project among EPA, NASA, NOAA and USGS to develop an indicator system using historical and current satellite data to quantify the temporal frequency, spatial extent, and magnitude of blooms in U.S. lakes. CyAN is providing weekly cyanobacteria monitoring data to state environmental and health departments from the European Space Agency Sentinel-3 satellite, training opportunities, and software applications.
One of the CyAN tools is an Android mobile application that provides simple access to satellite derived spatial and temporal information on cyanobacteria concentrations. Any state is welcome to participate, and the states currently accessing data include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Challenge: Toxicity information for sulfolane to inform cleanup levels
Resource: Peer review of the available reference doses (RfDs) and technical support
Partner: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC)

"EPA’s technical experts played a vital part in assisting the state of Alaska in understanding the risks of sulfolane in groundwater and the potential impacts to public health. EPA provided critical information on sulfolane mobility, toxicity and human health exposures that greatly assisted ADEC in making decisions on protecting residents. ADEC appreciates EPA for all their timely support and help by providing information on the best available science which was significant in Alaska’s response actions for sulfolane.”
– ADEC Division of Spill Prevention and Response Director Kristin Ryan

Sulfolane is an industrial solvent used in gasoline production and petroleum refining. The discovery in late 2009 of sulfolane in drinking water wells near the Flint Hills North Pole Refinery (about 15 miles east of Fairbanks, AK), led to an extensive investigation of contaminated groundwater. The groundwater plume is approximately 2 miles wide, 3.5 miles long and over 300 feet deep, rendering it one of the largest in the state, with many private properties impacted. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) began new animal studies on sulfolane in 2014.

EPA’s Region 10 (Pacific Northwest) requested that ORD conduct a Provisional Peer-Reviewed Toxicity Value (PPRTV) assessment for sulfolane. The information in PPRTV assessments can be used in combination with exposure information to characterize the public health risks of a given substance at a particular hazardous waste site. Importantly, these risk characterizations can form the basis for risk-based decision making, regulatory activities, and other risk management decisions designed to characterize and protect public health. EPA ORD finalized the PPRTV assessment in 2012.

At ADEC’s request in 2014, EPA ORD scientists participated in an independent, expert peer review workshop to discuss the available oral toxicity values/reference doses for sulfolane (including the PPRTV) and reach conclusions based on the available science. EPA ORD scientists provided essential technical support in the peer review workshop with respect to the scientific development process of the Sulfolane PPRTV assessment. This technical support assisted ADEC in their consideration of cleanup levels for contaminated groundwater. Ultimately, ADEC decided to wait to set a cleanup level for sulfolane until more data become available from the new NTP studies (target 2019), in order to best protect people from exposure. EPA ORD’s input provided ADEC with important information that will be needed for making a final determination.

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