Leglislators are debating a bill to exempt utilities from legal liability for chemicals used to treat wooden poles, prompted by possible soil contamination around Homer Electric Association (HEA) powerline poles following the Kenai Spur Highway north of Sterling.
Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) sponsored the proposal, Senate Bill 173, with a companion bill, House Bill 334, sponsored by Reps. Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski), Adam Wool (D-Fairbanks), and Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage).
The HEA powerline in question is in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where Refuge Deputy Manager Steve Miller said staff noticed apparently dead vegetation around the base of the poles. Miller said HEA’s permit to cross the Refuge, from the Refuge’s parent agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, specifies a distance from the base of the poles beyond which substances shouldn’t reach. In 2015, Fish and Wildlife sent toxicologist Lori Verbrugge to sample surface soil around 12 of the poles. She found levels of pentachlorophenol — a heavy-duty wood preservative often shortened to “penta” — greater than the U.S. Environmental Agency’s allowed amounts.
Wooden utility poles can have useful service lives of up to 60 years, thanks in part to chemicals like penta, which is applied to kill ants, termites, and rot-inducing fungus. Penta permeates about 36 million wooden poles nationwide according to the EPA, and about 250,000 in Alaska, according to Micciche’s testimony on SB 173 to the Senate Resources and Senate Judiciary Committees. Though the U.S Environmental Protection Agency permits penta as a wood preservative under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIRFA), it restricts previous uses as an insecticide and herbicide.
The EPA most recently examined the potential health effects of penta in 2008, when it reregistered the chemical under FIRFA and ruled that it “will not pose unreasonable risks to humans or the environment” if properly applied as a wood preservative, but that “a reasonably strong argument can be made that exposure to pentachlorophenol is associated with increased risks of a number of diseases. … Based on the evidence collected to date, careful control of exposures to chlorophenols, including pentachlorophenol, is certainly warranted.”