A faucet outside the home of a Pine Grove resident forced to drink bottled water in the Fall of 2020 out of fear that their tap water may be contaminated with PFAS. Photo by Holly Wright.
In February 2020, a state team led by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) began an investigation into the possibility of PFAS contamination spreading in groundwater north of Cherry Capital Airport and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station to drinking water wells in the nearby Pine Grove neighborhood of East Bay Township, near Traverse City.
Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS have been associated with adverse health effects ranging from increased cholesterol levels to an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer. A PFAS compound has been used in firefighting foams used in training at airports.
But state officials did not tell residents of 18 potentially affected homes of the investigation until October 2020, when they confirmed PFAS in the water of the 18 homeowners’ wells. The homeowners were understandably angry that eight months passed after the investigation started before they were made aware of it. Some might have taken precautions to avoid even the chance of exposure to the pollutants.
In response to the homeowners’ concerns, officials from the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) said they had not wanted to alarm affected residents of the neighborhood, preferring to have data in hand before they advised them. At a recent public meeting of the Citizens Advisory Working Group (CAWG) to MPART, members of PFAS-contaminated communities across the state challenged that rationale.
The effect on Pine Grove residents has been profound. In October 2020, longtime residents Carol and Philip Popa told former FLOW intern Holly Wright—who also lives in the neighborhood—that they were “having a hard time” feeling comfortable brushing their teeth with tap water. “I could have cancer because of them,” Philip said.
Tony Spaniola, a cottage owner near Oscoda, where the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base has contaminated groundwater and surface water with PFAS from firefighting foams, was particularly outraged. “In Oscoda, we live daily with the consequences of EGLE/DEQ’s tunnel-vision and minimizing statements and conduct,” Spaniola said. “For our sake, and for the sake of other communities around the state, EGLE should learn a lesson and not allow past mistakes to be repeated and amplified.”
This lesson is one that has eluded state officials for almost 50 years. When PBB fire retardant was accidentally mixed with cattle feed and entered Michigan’s food chain in 1973, the Michigan Departments of Agriculture and Public Health initially played down the human health threat, angering farmers with dying livestock and fanning public fear of a cancer outbreak.
Similar chemical threats from the 1980s into the 2000s were also often brushed aside by state agencies. Then, in 2014 and 2015, when lead in the drinking water of Flint reached levels of concern, state officials minimized the threat and attempted to portray residents raising concerns about the lead as grossly exaggerating. In the end, the officials were proven wrong—but approximately 99,000 residents of Flint were exposed to lead and long-term effects are likely for some.
Hoping to make sure this didn’t happen again, on her second day in office, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed her first executive directive establishing the policy that, “Action to mitigate or prevent threats to public health, safety, and welfare always should take precedence over any ill-advised attempt to protect the reputation of a department or agency, manipulate public perception, avoid political backlash, or engage in defensiveness, self-justification, or insular conduct.”
The directive went on to say, “If state government has information about an imminent threat to public health, safety, or welfare, the People of the State of Michigan have a right to know. State government must be open, transparent, and accountable to Michigan residents, even when a department, agency, or state officer falls short of the duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public we serve.”
MPART fell well short of the Governor’s standard when it failed to inform residents of the Pine Grove neighborhood, early and transparently, about the possibility of PFAS in their well water. Although MPART members are talking about a new “communications protocol” for similar situations in the future, this overcomplicates the problem. Affected members of the public have a right to know about potential chemical threats to their health as soon as state officials have reason to believe the threat may exist. It’s simple: assume the public can handle the truth—and tell the truth in a timely way.
The good news is that at little or no cost to themselves, homeowners are being connected to the Traverse City municipal drinking water supply, which is drawn from East Grand Traverse Bay. They will no longer be drinking and bathing in PFAS-contaminated water. Let’s hope no damage was done—beyond the damage to government credibility.