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Dunleavy vetoes statewide ban on pollution

Jun 13, 2023

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has vetoed a bill that would ban most firefighting departments from using a type of firefighting foam that has polluted drinking water in dozens of places across Alaska and many more in the Lower 48.

House Bill 51 had drawn broad support, passing the state House and Senate by a combined vote of 58-2 earlier this year.

In his formal veto message, the governor implied that he vetoed the bill because of problems with the implementation of the foam ban.

The veto received a swift response from bill supporters.

“It’s just outrageous and beyond understanding why the governor would do something like this,” said Pam Miller of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, which has been lobbying the Legislature for five years on the issue.

The original version of the bill, written by Rep. Stanley Wright, R-Anchorage, only allowed environmentally friendly refrigerants, but late in the legislative process, it was amended to also include the foam ban, which had been proposed in separate legislation by Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau.

In phone calls and in a written statement Tuesday, Kiehl offered scathing remarks about the administration’s decision, insinuating that it was done for reasons other than policy. Neither Wright nor his staff returned phone calls and text messages seeking comment.

Dunleavy’s veto kills both components of the bill unless lawmakers override it when they next convene.

That’s a difficult prospect: Overriding a governor’s veto requires 40 votes from the 60-person Legislature, meeting in joint session no later than the fifth day after the Legislature convenes.

That’s a high bar, and the Legislature hasn’t overridden the veto of a policy bill since 2002.

In his veto message, the governor said he looked forward to working with the Legislature on the portions of the bill Wright introduced.

Speaking Tuesday after the veto, Kiehl was irate.

“This was a five-year project. The bill changed colossally from first introduction to final passage. I addressed every concern that every Dunleavy administration department brought up. No one ever raised the issues in the governor’s letter — probably because they’re a nonissue,” he said.

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, in a written statement, said it was concerned by components of the bill that call for collecting and disposing of “Code Red” carts used for firefighting at remote airports.

The department said the costs of that program may have been understated by the department itself and that the state could be assuming greater legal liability than previously thought.

“This added liability was not addressed in committee discussion nor legislative changes and presents a significant, potential future cost. Further, the legislation does not address removal of the contaminated equipment or containers left behind, leaving PFAS contamination in the communities as a continued health risk,” it said.

The Department of Environmental Conservation, in a written statement, said that the “take-back program outlined in this bill undermines public safety and the protection of our lands by stripping remote Alaskan communities of access to necessary safety equipment with no available alternative and increasing the opportunity for more releases of PFAS into the environment during transit.”

It further said that the process of rolling the foam ban into a different bill — something that resulted in a final vote on the last day of the legislative session — prevented the department from commenting adequately.

Kiel said he doesn’t believe it. The additions were not different from what had been discussed previously in the state Senate, and the department raised no objections at that time.

Furthermore, he said, DEC is seeking federal approval to take over a federally managed hazardous waste disposal program.

If DEC believes that it can’t trust itself to dispose of firefighting foam, he said that casts serious doubt on the agency’s ability to take over a larger program.

“I don’t have an unkind word to say about the people at DEC who are trying to do their jobs, but I guess they had to put out a statement to keep their jobs,” Kiehl said.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: [email protected]. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.