Fighting Forever Chemicals: Michigan Governor, Feds Take Action

The logjam that has halted progress in dealing with PFAS, the toxic “forever chemicals” that plague communities across Michigan and the nation, is finally breaking up.

On October 27, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered state government to discontinue the purchase of many PFAS-containing products, as encouraged by FLOW last month. In a message to the Governor’s environmental advisor, FLOW and PFAS activist Tony Spaniola wrote, “The purchase and use of materials containing PFAS is an obstacle to reducing their presence in the environment and to reducing human health and environmental exposure. Because state government is a major purchaser of goods, this reality provides an opportunity for Governor Whitmer to show the way for other governments and the business sector to reduce PFAS in the supply chain.”

In signing her October 27 executive directive, the Governor, whose support was critical in enacting health-protective state drinking water standards for PFAS last year, said, “PFAS are dangerous, man-made chemicals that pose a threat to our health. While this is a good step, we still have so much more to do to address these forever chemicals. We need to lead with science and work together to keep families safe and ensure Michigan continues leading the nation when it comes to protecting people from toxic contaminants.”

Nine days earlier, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan announced a national PFAS strategy, the first proposed comprehensive federal effort to curtail PFAS threats to human health and the environment. While winning praise for many provisions, the strategy has been criticized for failing to address contamination from military facilities like the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda.

The action message was also the centerpiece of a webinar co-hosted on October 21 by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV) and FLOW. While MLCV introduced a toolkit for residents of communities affected by PFAS, U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell provided an update on her federal legislation, the  PFAS Action Act.

PFAS are a class of more than 4,700 different chemicals, poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS can take thousands of years to break down. PFAS are most dangerous when ingested by drinking or eating. PFAS have been linked to health effects such as impaired immune response, high cholesterol, and altered liver function. Other possible health effects include difficulty getting pregnant, kidney disease, heart disease, osteoarthritis, and some cancers.

The webinar was the second hosted by MLCV and FLOW in response to PFAS contamination confirmed in private drinking water wells in the Pine Grove neighborhood of East Bay Township near Traverse City in fall 2020. The contamination was found after state agencies decided to investigate groundwater near Cherry Capital Airport and a U.S. Coast Guard facility that used firefighting foams containing PFAS in training exercises for years. Residents of 18 homes in the Pine Grove neighborhood whose wells were contaminated with PFAS are now supplied with drinking water by Traverse City.

Controversy arose after it was learned that state officials waited eight months after commencing the investigation before notifying the affected residents. A citizens advisory group has now recommended that state officials should notify potentially affected residents as soon as the state commences a PFAS study.

FLOW provided updates on several issues related to the PFAS contamination in the Traverse City area:

  • The Traverse City drinking water treatment plant has reported that quarterly testing of East Bay, the source of the city’s drinking water, has not detected PFAS, but testing of treated drinking water has shown low levels of a PFAS compound, PFOA, though below the state health standard.
  • Cherry Capital Airport has submitted a grant application to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for $1.25 million to begin cleaning up the plume of contamination. 
  • The FAA has issued an alert informing airports that the use of non-PFAS firefighting foams will be allowed, but none meet the current specification requirements. The FAA expects that the U.S. Navy will be providing a specification for a PFAS-free firefighting material by January 31, 2023, and the FAA looks to adopt this specification.
  • Because the FAA agreed that PFAS firefighting foams do not need to be used in training exercises, Cherry Capital Airport’s use now should be zero unless there is an aircraft accident. 
  • The airport and Coast Guard are conducting further investigation of the PFAS-contaminated groundwater this fall, with results expected in early 2022, The study will include borings in the Pine Grove neighborhood.

Dingell’s PFAS Action Act, which passed the U.S. House 241-183 in July, would require EPA to take action to address two PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — through a number of regulatory provisions:

  • Designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund).
  • Designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
  • Requiring EPA to establish national drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS. 
  • Requiring EPA to place discharge limits on industrial releases of PFAS.
  • Providing $200 million annually for wastewater treatment.
  • Prohibiting unsafe incineration of PFAS waste.
  • Placing a moratorium on the introduction of new PFAS chemicals into commerce.
  • Requiring comprehensive PFAS health testing.
  • Creating a voluntary label for PFAS in cookware.

Dingell urged webinar participants to express support for the bill to Michigan’s U.S. Senators.

Leaders from communities impacted by PFAS recently announced the launch of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network (GLPAN), a coalition led by impacted community members to create a unified voice for action on PFAS contamination.

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