PFAS-tainted Groundwater Emergency Threatens Traverse City Residents’ Wells and Well-Being

By Holly N. Wright, FLOW Special Contributor

“We brought you some water; we hope it helps,” say two volunteers from the nearby Presbyterian Church of Traverse City during a visit to my residence on October 21 in the Pine Grove neighborhood of Traverse City’s East Bay Township. “We have meals prepared for folks on Thursdays to help during the COVID-19 pandemic; we can feed you, too. Please let us know if you need anything.”

Their offer of water and food feels thoughtful and sincere, and also brings to my mind receiving a post-funeral dish. I feel a deep sense of loss.

News has just broken that drinking water wells in East Bay Township, just a few blocks from Traverse City’s eastern edge and just across US-31 from East Grand Traverse Bay, may be contaminated by PFAS—what are being called “forever chemicals.”

My well. My neighbors’ wells. Our wells… our water… the water that many in my neighborhood use for drinking and cooking; the water that our households consume.

News articles hit. The Traverse City Record-Eagle reports, as does The Ticker, that about 20 homes and one business may have been using drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals — possibly for decades. The word “cancer” jumps off the screen wherever it appears.

State environmental regulators launch efforts to determine whether wells in the Pine Grove neighborhood are contaminated. The new investigation comes after a series of state-installed groundwater monitoring wells returned elevated results for various PFAS chemicals. Sampling wells monitored by state environmental regulators detected levels of PFAS above the acceptable range.

I became aware of this serious situation via a letter in my mailbox dated October 19 from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), which stated: “Your water well may be contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) compounds related to contamination at the East Bay site near Cherry Capital Airport and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station.”

I re-read the letter, once, twice; a handful of blocky paragraphs of formal and vague content. A letter that, not so long ago, I may have disregarded as non-urgent. “Evaluating… if contamination… was detected… groundwater…”

It’s personal and professional for me. I work in, around, and for water. Currently, I serve as intern for the Glen Lake Association and am preparing to graduate from the Freshwater Studies Program through Northwestern Michigan College. In summer of 2019, I interned with FLOW. Despite my having, on my part, a basic understanding of the PFAS issue, I struggle to process the letter.  

They’re requesting permission to sample the well. A contractor will call to set up an appointment to take a water sample. Results may take… “a few weeks.” There are some websites and numbers for more information — including information to contact the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Grand Traverse County Health Department. Until a recommendation can be provided by the State of Michigan, residents can get bottled water for free at the fire station. As a “precaution.”

Later, loading four cases of bottled water into my vehicle at the fire station on Parsons Road near Three Mile Road, equipped with a new voucher for the next week, it’s really sinking in — this is a thing. This is going to be a thing — but I do not know what to expect. This unknown feels disturbing. Unsettling. 

A complexity: Gratitude for access to the bottled water alongside grievance with the product. This water, diverted from elsewhere, probably contains microplastics; its own style of potential nastiness. My bin is filling up fast with many individual plastic Aquafina-brand bottles. Wait, are these actually recyclable? The packaging is unclear. I should find out if it’s recyclable… I should find out… which number to call… 

At a virtual town hall meeting on October 26, representatives from EGLE and MDHHS present many slides with data and maps. It’s a lot to take in. Can I rely on these government agencies to observe good methods and to have my back? How are other households viewing this situation and coping? Questions — and emotions like sadness and anger, arise. It’s complicated. I’m not sure how to feel.

Connecting with others helps. Carol and Phillip Popa, longtime Pine Grove owners, love their home with its custom woodwork, built on-site, one of the neighborhood’s earliest houses and Carol’s childhood home. Talking, we laugh and agree that the plastic bottle situation is “a pain” and that we’re getting too much election mail; and that the October 26 town hall presentation was challenging to attend, mentally. But when I hear Carol say that she’s “having a hard time” feeling comfortable brushing her teeth with tap water, I cringe; and when Phillip says, “I could have cancer because of them,” I’m numb. It’s not good. It’s not right.

As the Popas tell me about their lifelong connections with water as Michiganders — fishing, boating, rock hunting — activities enjoyed in the past and now; I reflect on my own relationship with my threatened tap water. 

The water that flows from my tap is the water that flows below my home. 

I am connected to that water. That ancient groundwater, connected to surface water. Everything is connected in the watershed by the hydrologic cycle. 

So when my heart aches over poisoned water, it aches also for the life connected to the water. From the little aquatic insects to the fish and the people — many lives all over this great State of Michigan. Inseparable. Degraded.

Groundwater is invisible. My grief feels nebulous and difficult to attach. 

As of this week, AECOM, the engineering firm contracted by EGLE, will be coming by to sample my well. 

I can wait. I can reach out for support and information. I will pay attention.

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