Tag: groundwater

Groundwater and Green Ooze

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Green ooze photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT)

By Dave Dempsey

When a mysterious green slime crept onto the shoulder of I-696 in Madison Heights last year, it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all.  Instead, it was the inevitable result of state policies since 1995 that have treated Michigan’s groundwater as an essentially worthless resource.  And Michigan residents have been paying both in tax dollars and health risks ever since.

The source of the Madison Heights green ooze, which contained toxic hexavalent chromium and TCE, was the former Electro-Plating Services business beside the freeway, according to the State of Michigan. The subject of numerous state and federal enforcement actions for sloppy handling of toxic waste, Electro-Plating Services had gone into bankruptcy.  The state found that improper waste management allowed the chemicals to seep into the ground below the facility and eventually exit onto I-696.

The owner of the Madison Heights building linked to the green ooze has reportedly started to clean up his Detroit property after months of pressure from city and state officials.

Had this occurred between 1990 and 1995, the company would have been required to clean up the soils and/or install a barrier to keep the contaminants within them from migrating off-site.  But the 1995 changes to state law created categories of “use-based” cleanups.  If the party responsible for the mess could show the property’s groundwater would not be a drinking water source, the contaminants could remain. But groundwater is not static. It moves.

Groundwater is not the drinking water source for most of southeast Michigan; the region gets most of its drinking water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. But leaving toxic chemicals in place assumes groundwater will never again be a drinking water source. Found in many locations around the state, volatile organic chemicals in soils and groundwater can also vaporize through basement floors and into occupied buildings, threatening human health.

The Electro-Plating Services contamination will be costly to the taxpayer. In March of this year, a state legislative committee approved $600,000 in taxpayer funds to clean up the site and demolish the building. The full cost of the cleanup may exceed $1 million. The company’s owner paid a different kind of price, a one-year jail sentence for criminal violations and restitution of $1.4 million.

The green ooze site is farm from unique. “As visually dramatic as this it, it really draws attention to the fact that there are thousands and thousands of sites across the state where soil and groundwater is contaminated,” Tracy Kecskemeti, district supervisor for Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy said, “and we only have the resources to address a small number.”

Michigan can and must do better. It must identify funding to clean up those thousands of sites, and to compel private parties responsible for groundwater contamination to carry the weight of cleanup. But the state must also change policies that allow groundwater pollution to remain in place – and then to move, endangering the environment and human health.

Michigan’s Ottawa County has a Groundwater Conundrum

By Bob Otwell

In the Great Lakes state, we think of water as abundant, if not inexhaustible. Not far from Grand Rapids and Muskegon, Ottawa County is bordered on the west by the bulging waters of an engorged Lake Michigan. However, over the past 30 years, increasing use of groundwater is causing water shortages and increasing pollution within the groundwater supply.

In terms of population, Ottawa County is the fastest growing county in the state. Grand Haven is in the northwest corner and Holland is in the southwest corner of the county, and Grand Rapids sits just to the east in Kent County. Ottawa County has four sources for its water supply; Lake Michigan, inland lakes, a glacial drift aquifer, and a deeper bedrock aquifer. Most of the population receives drinking water from public water systems supplied by Lake Michigan, while the major groundwater users are irrigated farms and rural homeowners.

Michigan State University (MSU) completed two comprehensive Ottawa County groundwater reports between 2011 and 2016. The reports tabulated groundwater use, and defined geology and hydrology for the county and the region. The chart below from the MSU studies shows a sharp increase in water use starting in about 1990, led by increases in irrigation (IRR), followed by domestic wells (DOM), with smaller uses by industry and public groundwater systems. Total water use quadrupled between 1990 and 2015.

The MSU reports found that the primary issue for groundwater supply is that the bedrock aquifer water levels have declined by as much as 45 feet. This means that more groundwater is being taken out of the aquifer than is being recharged by rainfall. This lowering of groundwater levels has caused a change in flow patterns within the bedrock aquifer, resulting in increased salinity and higher chloride levels. Eight percent of samples are now above the Secondary Drinking Water Standards for chloride of 250 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which are designed to protect against taste, odor and color impacts. Many more are at levels harmful to agricultural irrigation, which can be as low as 70 mg/L. Background chloride concentrations in Michigan are typically 10-30 mg/L. The following chart from MSU studies shows increasing chloride levels since around 1995.

The bedrock aquifer, part of the Marshall sandstone formation, is an old seabed, and in some places has salinity levels higher than the ocean. Historic freshwater recharge has diluted these levels to create potable water, but the increased pumping has changed the flow regime. This groundwater conundrum is not confined to Ottawa County. Intensive groundwater pumping in other Michigan counties in the Saginaw Bay area and southeast Michigan has caused similar situations of increasing salinity.

So, what should be done about these situations? How can we live in a state with what seems like so much available water and yet have water shortages? Steps are being taken to reduce future use of the bedrock aquifer in Ottawa County. Allendale Township bans new housing developments from using groundwater. Ottawa County has prepared a groundwater sustainability plan to influence future groundwater use. The plan hopes to balance economic growth and preserve the groundwater resource. Groundwater level and quality monitoring are an important part of the plan, along with closer monitoring of water use.

But how long do we watch as degradation to the aquifer occurs before more decisive action takes place? Methodically switching irrigation supply and rural homes from the bedrock aquifer to a Lake Michigan source could permanently halt this degradation. Lack of action could harm the aquifer for future generations.

FLOW board member Bob Otwell is a hydrologist and founder of Otwell & Mawby

Recognizing Our Symbiotic Relationship with Groundwater

Groundwater system painting by Glenn Wolff

Over half the U.S. population, including 99 percent of the rural population, relies on groundwater for its drinking water supply. In Michigan, 45 percent of the population has a drinking water supply of groundwater. Groundwater is also used in crop irrigation and industrial processes. But many citizens are generally unaware of the nature and critical importance of groundwater.

Groundwater is water found underground in cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rock. These underground stores of water are called aquifers. Aquifers consist of permeable materials like gravel, sand, sandstone, or fractured rock, like limestone, that allow water to flow through. Groundwater can be found almost anywhere: the area where water fills the aquifer is called the saturation zone, and the top of the saturation zone is referred to as the water table. The water table may be located a foot below the ground’s surface, or it can be hundreds of feet down.

Groundwater can be extracted from aquifers naturally or artificially. Springs naturally bring groundwater to the surface and discharge it into lakes and streams (surface water bodies). Wells drilled into the aquifer can also pump groundwater to the surface.

Groundwater supplies are recharged or replenished by rain and snow melt. There can be shortages if groundwater supplies are used up faster than they are naturally recharged, or if supplies are polluted by human activities.

Groundwater is critically important to daily living. Of all the Earth’s water that is usable by humans, 98 percent is groundwater. A 2005 U.S. Geological Survey found that groundwater is used for 37 percent of agricultural water use, primarily in irrigation. Consider the fact that Americans, collectively, drink more than one billion gallons of tap water every day, and that 40 percent of the world’s food supply is grown on irrigated cropland, and the crucial importance of clean groundwater becomes clear.

Most people do not realize the impact they can have on groundwater. Anything poured or spilled onto the ground’s surface can end up in the groundwater supply, even years later, and contaminated groundwater can ruin human and animal health. Overuse can lead to shortages in the water supply. The average American uses 100 gallons of water every day. If the rate of use exceeds the rate of natural recharge, a shortage may occur. With the level of public and industrial dependence on groundwater, such a shortage could be devastating.

Every individual has a responsibility to protect groundwater, because every individual is impacted daily by the quality and quantity available.

How to Protect Your Groundwater

Test your well

If your drinking water comes from a private well, have the water tested. Spring is a great time to test well water, particularly for health-related concerns like bacteria and nitrate. Check out this fact sheet on water well testing by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Properly fill and seal an unused well on your property

Wells that are no longer in use represent a direct conduit for pollutants to contaminate the groundwater aquifer. If you have an unused well on your property, take steps to ensure that it is abandoned properly and will not contaminate groundwater in the future. Here is information you need to know from EGLE.

Take steps to reduce your water use

About 45% of Michigan residents rely on groundwater as their primary water supply. Reducing water use conserves groundwater, since most groundwater used in homes is discharged to lakes and streams and not returned to the aquifer. Some quick and easy solutions to reduce your water use include buying more efficient appliances, faucets, and toilets. Planting less water-intensive landscaping and using rain barrels to collect rainfall for watering the garden can also help to conserve groundwater. Often times, reducing water use results in lower water bills and energy savings as well. Read more here.

Do a spring cleaning of hazardous materials around your home

Old motor oil, unused or old paint/varnish or other cleaning products often build up in and around our homes. Take an opportunity during this week to do a spring cleaning of hazardous materials so that they do not end up contaminating groundwater or surface waters. Dispose of them properly — that means not down the storm sewer, and not down your septic system either.

Learn about water quality for your community water supply

Many “city” water supplies in Michigan use groundwater. About 12,000 public wells service 1.7 million citizens. Contact your local water utility and ask them for the most recent water quality data or learn about how your community’s water supply is protected.

Cherish the Groundwater Under Our Feet

It’s hard to appreciate what you can’t see. But in the case of the abundant water that lies beneath our feet, appreciation is essential.

March 8-14 is Groundwater Awareness Week. In Michigan, that means learning about and cherishing the water that supplies 45% of the state’s population with drinking water, that serves the needs of industry and agriculture, that is vital to our trout streams and contributes between 20% and 40% of the volume of the Great Lakes.

To foster appreciation of groundwater, FLOW is unveiling our groundwater story map. Packed full of information about the environmental significance of this resource, the story map is a window into one of Michigan’s overlooked assets.

Click below to view the interactive map.

Michigan has inadequate protections for groundwater. By some estimates there are more than 20,000 sites of groundwater contamination in our state. Chemicals like PFAS and TCE, conventional contaminants like nitrates and chlorides, and microorganisms like E. coli have fouled groundwater across Michigan.

There are an estimated 130,000 failing septic systems that process household waste, largely in rural areas, and discharge microorganisms to groundwater and surface waters. Research has linked concentrations of septic systems with human illness.

Since 2018, FLOW has been committed to educating the public and working to reform state groundwater policy. The information and policy recommendations in our report, The Sixth Great Lake, are helping to drive a discussion of how Michigan can do a better job of safeguarding the groundwater we drink, use and benefit from.

We encourage you to check out the map — and to participate actively in defense of our precious groundwater.

Groundwater Should be Treated as Priceless, Not Worthless

The soil underneath Barbara Godwin-Chulick’s home in downtown Charlevoix is contaminated with toxic PCE. Photo courtesy of Interlochen Public Radio.

By Dave Dempsey

Why should we clean up contaminated groundwater instead of sealing it off?

Because what we can’t see can come back to hurt us.

Almost 40 years ago, contamination in Charlevoix’s groundwater forced the city to switch to Lake Michigan as its drinking water source. Traditionally, the state policy was to require cleanup of polluted groundwater to protect it for future uses. But in a major precedent, the state and the Environmental Protection Agency decided to let the contamination go on the belief that it would cleanse itself over time and because it was assumed nobody would be drinking the groundwater.

Now, Michigan Radio reports, that contamination is threatening health and property values.

This is one of scores of examples across Michigan where letting things go has left behind problems—and bills—for future generations.  Today’s generations.

In FLOW’s 2018 groundwater report, the Sixth Great Lake, we called for a change in state law to require cleanup of groundwater except where it is technically infeasible. Now legislation has been introduced to do exactly that.

It’s time we treat groundwater as priceless, not worthless.

The Case of the Green Ooze

Green liquid oozing from a retaining wall along I-696 on Dec. 20, 2019. Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Transportation

By Dave Dempsey

It’s disappointing that it took creeping green ooze to awaken state officials in Lansing to a monumental environmental problem — thousands of hazardous groundwater contamination sites across the state. But that’s exactly what has happened.

When a stream of green liquid began to flow onto a metro Detroit freeway in December 2019, alarm bells clanged. It soon turned out that the ooze contained, among other contaminants, hexavalent chromium, which is associated with cancer, as well as kidney and liver damage. Fortunately, homes and businesses in the area have municipal drinking water supplies instead of private wells, so the immediate health impact on people has been minimal.

The now-defunct Madison Heights electro-plating facility believed responsible for the ooze had 5,000 containers of haphazardly stored toxic waste when government inspectors arrived in 2016. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a $1.5 million emergency cleanup but did not address contaminated soils under the building. That’s the source of the I-696 ooze.

Although the owner of the company reported last week for a one-year prison term, state officials missed the opportunity to deal with the mess before it became a crisis when they failed to take decisive enforcement action against the firm after inspections found major problems beginning in 1996. Instead, they wrote letters and notices of violation for 20 years. Now another expensive cleanup is underway.

The green ooze is a symbol of a much bigger problem — thousands of groundwater contamination sites across the state where little or no cleanup has taken place. Many of these sites do threaten drinking water supplies or direct contact hazards — and there is little public money available to clean them up.

Until 1995, state policy dictated the full cleanup of contaminated groundwater in most instances, and from 1990 to 1995 state law also assigned strict liability for owners of contaminated sites. But the Michigan Legislature dramatically weakened both protections, allowing contaminants to be contained rather than cleaned up in many instances, and making it much more difficult to hold polluters accountable for the costs of cleanup. The public has been burdened with much of that cost.

A state that likes to think of itself as “Pure Michigan” has a far-from-pure groundwater resource, even though 45% of the state’s population gets its drinking water from wells. This intolerable condition cannot continue.

Responding to negative headlines over the green ooze, Governor Whitmer last week called for the restoration of Michigan’s polluter pay law and other actions to address the problem of lingering groundwater contamination. But the Legislature is in no hurry to comply.

It’s unclear how many messes it will take before policymakers wake up. But their action can’t wait. Had a fire broken out at the Madison Heights facility, and firefighters who responded sprayed water on the blaze, it might have resulted in an explosion like one that killed 173 people, including 104 firefighters, in China in 2015.

The antidote to green ooze is better business stewardship, tougher environmental enforcement, and a polluter pay law. It’s time for Michigan to get its groundwater act together.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy adviser.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Michigan Groundwater Expert Distills Lessons of a Career

Professor David Lusch retired in 2017, after a 38-year career in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU). Beginning in 1992 with the publication of the Aquifer Vulnerability Map of Michigan, Dr. Lusch helped pioneer the use of geographic information systems for groundwater mapping and management in Michigan. The Groundwater Inventory and Mapping Project, which Lusch co-directed, won the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) Excellence Award in 2005. In 2008, MSU awarded Dr. Lusch the prestigious Distinguished Academic Staff Award and IMAGIN, Michigan’s professional geospatial organization, presented him with the Jim Living Geospatial Achievement Award.

As a member of the team that developed the Michigan Groundwater Management Tool (MGMT), Professor Lusch received the annual Director’s Recognition Award from MDEQ in 2009. Dr. Lusch was a co-PI of the recent Ottawa County Water Resources Study which used process-based flow modeling, coupled with field sampling, historical data mining, geostatistical analyses, and geospatial visualizations to better understand the underlying mechanisms controlling the patterns of shallow groundwater salinization in Ottawa County.

We asked him to offer his views on critical groundwater matters.

Do you think the Michigan populace understands groundwater and its importance? Why or why not?

In my opinion, most citizens of Michigan have only the most basic of an understanding of groundwater. Most people seem to intuitively know that there is groundwater beneath the ground surface and they generally know how important groundwater is as a drinking water source. However, they know little or nothing about aquifer systems, which aquifer they get their own drinking water from, the recharge areas in their landscapes, or the intimate connection between groundwater and surface water resources (especially the maintenance of stream flow and temperature).

What is the most important or surprising thing you have learned in your years working on groundwater?

The lack of adequate amounts of fresh (i.e., non-saline) groundwater in central Ottawa County from the Marshall Formation.

What are the biggest threats to Michigan groundwater quality, and what gaps are there in groundwater policy?

Human contamination of groundwater by an increasing number of hazardous chemicals. PFOS/PFOA are good examples of materials that have been used for a long time and that only recently have been found in groundwater because we never looked for it before. PFOS/PFOA were both on the EPA’s 2016 Contaminant Candidate List, but no preliminary regulatory determinations have yet been made due to a paucity of data about occurrence and toxicity. From a drinking water quality perspective, I think the biggest threat is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Michigan appears to be a water-rich state; why would groundwater become scarce in some areas in the future?

As the Ottawa County Groundwater Study showed, some areas of Michigan are underlain by a very thin layer of fresh groundwater floating on top of saline groundwater. As groundwater use increases, the saline groundwater can upwell into the production zone and cause an increase in the concentration of dissolved solids (chlorides in the Ottawa County case). Drilling deeper will only exacerbate the problem because the TDS concentrations increase with depth (in some places reaching levels three times the TDS concentration of ocean water). In some areas of the state, the transmissivities of the local aquifer materials are small and the recharge rates are slow, so groundwater yield is notably low (less than 8-10 gpm in some places — a typical 3-bedroom home with modern domestic infrastructure requires 15-20 gpm). Lastly, in certain areas of Michigan, cold-transitional stream types need up to 96-98% of the available groundwater discharge in order to maintain their stream habitat. In such water management areas, this leaves only 2-4% of the available groundwater for all human uses.

If you were Michigan’s groundwater czar, what would you do to protect the resource?

As groundwater czar, my first priority would be to financially enhance the Environmental Health Divisions of all of the Local Health Departments in the state. Environmental Health sanitarians staffing these agencies are the first line of defense for protecting and maintaining groundwater quality (through the well and septic installation inspection programs). Currently, these programs are funded with pass-through money from the Michigan EGLE Department, Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division. The minimum program requirement for the LHDs is to field inspect at least 10% of all the wells drilled in any one year. A few of the more affluent counties LHDs (e.g., Oakland Health Department) in the state inspect 100% of all the well installations in their county. Such a level of funding/staffing for all the LHDs in the state would go a long way toward protecting our groundwater resource.

My second priority would be to increase the funding for the Environmental Health Divisions of all of the Local Health Departments in the state in order to have vibrant and vigilant Pollution Incident Planning Programs. Coupled with this, I would also increase funding for local fire chiefs/marshals so they could effectively bolster the PIP Program with onsite inspections under the Firefighter Right To Know statute. Both of these activities should be focused on existing wellhead protection areas for both Community and Non-community Public Water Supplies, with special emphasis placed on non-transient, non-community supplies (schools, nursing homes, apartment complexes, etc.).

Click here to learn about FLOW’s groundwater program, “The Sixth Great Lake: The Emergency Threatening Michigan’s Overlooked Groundwater Resource,” why Michigan needs stronger septic protections, a FLOW podcast about the groundwater connection, videos and infographics about our groundwater, and key policy recommendations for the Michigan legislature and MDEQ.

Proposal to Abolish Required Septic System Inspections Threatens Kalkaska Waters


With an estimated 130,000 septic systems leaking E. coli and other pollutants into Michigan groundwater, lakes, and streams, you would hardly think it time to relax inspection requirements.

But that’s exactly what Kalkaska County is considering this spring – and this has some local residents and environmental experts concerned.

Kalkaska County has a sanitary code that requires inspections of septic systems when residential properties sell. There are no such statewide requirements, making Michigan the only state without them and leaving the job of protecting waters from septic systems up to local government.

“This proposal [to kill the inspection requirement] is wrong,” says Kalkaska county resident Seth Phillips, who adds the answer to any problems with the District 10 sanitary code’s point-of-sale requirement for septic system inspections is to improve it, not rescind it.

“We know that bad septic systems pollute and pose a threat to our drinking water and our lakes and streams. We need to work together to protect our water for all of us and for future generations,” Phillips says.

A study by Michigan State University found that septic systems in Michigan are not preventing E. coli and other fecal bacteria from reaching our water supplies. Sampling 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta, the research found a clear correlation: The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source-tracking bacteria in the water.

Failing septic systems expose water not only to pathogen pollution from 31 million gallons a day of raw sewage statewide, but also to the release of chemical, pharmaceutical, and other wastes resulting from domestic use.

Point-of-sale inspection ordinances make sense. A study coordinated by Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council found that one third of the aging septic systems in Antrim County have not been replaced.

“Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council has been researching this topic for several years,” says Grenetta Thomassey, the Council’s Watershed Director. “One thing that has been very clear is that Time of Transfer or Point of Sale septic system inspection programs find things wrong with septic systems and require them to be fixed. It may not be perfect; some failing systems are not inspected because the property is not being sold or transferred. However, it’s obvious from the annual reports that problems are being found and corrected, and this is a step in the right direction and helps protect our water resources.”

A report on the Kalkaska County point-of-sale program found that between April 2017 and March 2018, 335 inspections were performed in the County. Forty-five systems were in compliance with the sanitary code, while three were found to be failing. The other 287 were identified with some level of concern. So, 87% of the inspected systems during the period presented some level of issue for owners to address or be aware of. 

In a letter to Kalkaska County Commissioners, FLOW urged the officials not to eliminate the requirement.

“Requiring inspection and correction of failing on-site septic systems at the time of property sale is a reasonable method of protecting the public’s waters without unduly burdening property owners,” wrote FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “It assures that the vast majority of systems will be inspected at some time to assure they are providing proper stewardship of our shared waters. Eliminating this ordinance will remove the only protection now in place to protect the public health and environment from the threats posed by inadequate septic systems.”

The District 10 Health Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed change on Friday, April 26 at the District 10 office in Cadillac, 521 Cobb Street, at 9 a.m.


PFAS: An Environmental and Public Health Crisis that Needs Answers and Action


This is the second installment in a series of essays by FLOW board member Rick Kane on the vital issues of risk management and the responsibilities of public officials under the public trust doctrine. Rick is the former Director of Security, Environment, Transportation Safety and Emergency Services for Rhodia, North America. He is certified in environmental, hazardous materials, and security management, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan and University of Dallas.


PFAS – Public Trust and Risk Management

The discovery of groundwater, surface water, and drinking water contamination by fluorochemicals has triggered a global search for polluted areas, toxicology studies, contaminant sources, responsible party identification, and government actions to establish regulations. PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are the primary fluorochemicals of concern; however, they are only two members of a very large class known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under investigation. PFAS are used as raw materials and in final products such as firefighting foams, industrial cleaning and treating products, and fabric and paper with water or grease repellents, and also to fabricate membranes for medical and water treatment applications.

PFOA production started in 1947, and during the 1960s to 1990s, internal DuPont studies showed their presence in workers’ blood and drinking water, but DuPont did not disclose the findings of their studies to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2000, the company 3M, after negotiations with the EPA, announced a phaseout of PFOS. In 2005, the EPA designated PFOA as a “likely carcinogen,” and DuPont paid a settlement for withholding information. In 2012, an independent science panel reported linkages to health problems, followed in 2015 by hundreds of scientists signing an international “call to action.” Faced with an emerging PFAS contamination crisis of its groundwater, surface, and drinking water, Michigan in 2017 set a high priority to identify areas of contamination and supply safe drinking water and became one of the leaders in addressing the issue, with other states now starting programs. In Europe, through the European Union REACH program (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals), specific controls and implementation dates have been established for immediate action and deadlines set for 2020. C&EN Per-Fluorinated Chemicals Taint Drinking Water,  PFAS Response – Taking Action Protecting Michigan,  Understanding REACH,  EU Restriction of PFOA, Related Substances

PFOS and PFOA, once widely used, are no longer manufactured in the United States. PFAS have an extremely low level of biodegradability, are environmentally persistent, and, as a result, are known as the “forever chemicals.” Scientists are still learning about the health effects, but current studies have shown that certain PFAS may:

  • Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant;
  • Increase the chance of high blood pressure in pregnant women;
  • Increase the chance of thyroid disease;
  • Increase cholesterol levels;
  • Change immune response; and
  • Increase the chance of cancer, especially kidney and testicular cancers.

States of emergency have been declared in several communities where high levels have been detected in drinking water. U.S. lawmakers are urging the EPA to regulate these chemicals as a class. Presently, there are more than 4,700 PFAS registered by the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society, and the health and environmental impacts are known for only a very few. C&EN U.S. Senators Seek Regulation PFASs

Michigan adopted 70 parts per trillion (ppt) as a legally enforceable cleanup level for PFOS or PFOA. However, a federal report, once suppressed by the U.S. military and EPA, proposes a safe daily level of consumption for the two PFAS at one-tenth the current EPA level. The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) translated these dose levels to drinking water maximums of 11 ppt for PFOA and 7 ppt for PFOS. C&EN Michigan Declares State of Emergency C&EN U.S. Report Proposes Lower Safe Limit

The PFAS crisis is an ongoing example of a failure to apply comprehensive risk assessment and management practices and to uphold the Public Trust Doctrine as outlined in the first installment of this risk management series. A crisis developed because commercialization did not wait for the science; human health, drinking water supplies, and environmental protection were compromised. Industry continues to promote the use of the “best available science” in restricting and regulating PFAS. However, the knowledge base on alternatives, toxicology, environmental transport and fate, mitigation, and remediation continues to lag the commercial introduction and use of PFAS. There is a lack of precaution and use of public trust principles to protect public waters.  

PFAS Risk

Risk was introduced in the previous installment as a function of probability and consequence. Probability can be further represented as a function of threat and vulnerability. 

Risk = Probability x Consequence

Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence

PFAS Threats

Lack of Regulations – PFAS are not yet classified as hazardous materials under air, water, waste, or safe drinking water regulations. PFAS are present and causing problems in all of these media due to a lack of appropriate chemical management and regulatory controls.

Inadequate Toxicology and Ecosystem Threat Information – New PFAS are being identified in the environment and “allowable limits” are under study and debate. “Allowable” drinking water concentrations are extremely low, parts per trillion compared to other hazardous chemicals such as PCBs and chlorinated solvents in parts, which are measured in parts per million and billion; PFAS limits are orders of magnitude lower. This is a crisis requiring a priority and new approaches to mitigate water contaminants at extremely low concentrations that move easily through the environment. 

Unidentified Contaminated Sites and Water Bodies – Hot zones are still being discovered. PFAS are found at military airbases, firefighting training facilities, and sites where the compounds were used to fight fires, were and are being manufactured and used to make products, and were disposed of or landfilled.

Lack of Control over Existing Stocks, Inventories – There are unknown quantities of PFAS at fire departments, cleaning and treating businesses, waste disposal operations, and product manufacturers. How are the PFAS being stored, used, disposed of, and replaced? One drum released to surface or groundwater can contaminate an enormous volume of drinking water.

Continued Manufacture and Use – New PFAS materials are being manufactured and used with a lack of information on health and environmental impacts and regulations. There are thousands of PFAS compounds, derivatives, and degradation products with health and safety information known only for a few.

Use of “Best Available Science” for Regulation – New regulation is needed for industry when “best available” is inadequate and a lack of “precaution” has expanded the number of crisis sites and new chemicals introduced to the environment.  For example, the commercialization of “GenX” fluoro-surfactant (hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid HFPO-DA parent acid) as a partial substitute for PFOS and PFOA was believed to be a safe alternative, but was later discovered also to be toxic.  Discharges from the Chemours (formerly DuPont) GenX manufacturing plant near Fayetteville, North Carolina, have contaminated the Cape Fear River and groundwater in the region. Air emissions from the plant have even contaminated rainwater, which, in turn, contaminated groundwater that is not hydraulically connected to the river or groundwater near the plant!  Chemours to Pay Fine GenXEPA Releases Draft Safe Daily GenX Dose,  The Fluoro Council

Vulnerability to PFAS

Children are the Most Vulnerable to the effects of PFAS – Exposure is not only from drinking water, but also from swimming in contaminated areas and eating contaminated food. 

PFAS Move Easily in Surface and Groundwater – Water analysis takes time and must be done by certified laboratories using expensive equipment (EPA Method 537 Rev 1.1 – Solid Phase Extraction and Liquid Chromatography/Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS).  This inhibits quick identification and delineation of hot zones. It is estimated that there are thousands of potentially contaminated sites in Michigan alone.  Record Eagle PFAS Plume Confirmed Near School

Human Health Impacts Occur from Long-Term Exposure – Symptoms and warning signs are not immediately evident.

Effectiveness of In-Home Removal Systems – Certain in-home drinking water treatment systems can be used for PFAS, but they are not efficient compared to the removal of other contaminant chemicals. The operating life of activated granular charcoal filters, for example, is shorter because of the low concentration levels (parts per trillion) that must be achieved. In addition, effectiveness has only been tested for a limited number of PFAS. Proper disposal of used filters is an issue to prevent PFAS from reentering the environment.

PFAS Consequences

PFASs are continuing to be introduced into the ecosystem – And PFAS move rapidly through surface and groundwater. Extremely low concentrations have toxic impacts. Millions of people are at risk and others remain in the dark as testing and delineation goes on.   

Food Contamination and Consumption Restrictions – Restrictions, especially for eating fish, have been issued at some locations.  Health impacts from consumption are speculated, but largely unknown. PFAS bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain.

Water Recreational Use Limitations – Recreational restrictions are being imposed in some areas to avoid direct contact with PFAS foams during swimming and general water recreational activities. 

Recommendations – Close the Gaps and Take Stronger Action

Excellent listings of recommendations for establishing regulations and identifying and mitigating the current crisis in Michigan can be found on the websites of the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).  Michigan Environmental Council PFAS Recommendations,  PFAS Response – Taking Action Protecting Michigan 

Important and additional actions include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Government officials must recommit to their primary duty to protect human health and safety, protect the environment, and meet their public trust duties. Accountability for the PFAS crisis is resulting in huge liabilities for both government and private sector entities.  Government officials cannot allow continued risk and consequences to the public as the battle ramps up regarding who is responsible and who pays.  
  2. Reclassifying the compounds to a higher regulatory risk level will enable stronger action to be taken to protect drinking water, discharges to the environment, remediation activities, and control of manufacturing, use, and storage. Lawmakers have proposed legislation, but actions are slow and PFAS continue to be discharged and spread through the environment.
  3. New regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and/or state authority should use a precautionary approach to PFAS manufacturing, use, new chemical approvals and disposal. Use of “best available science” and “predicting toxicity” is not adequately addressing all of the risk elements. Health and the environment continue to be put in jeopardy. The use of best available science only works when the body of knowledge is adequate to determine the full risk to human health and the ecosystem.  The current state of knowledge is still far short in understanding risk.
  4. Establish a lower drinking water Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFAS. A Center for Disease Control (CDC) draft study indicates 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA, compared to the federal limit of 70 ppt.
  5. Ensure an adequate number of water testing laboratories are in place with appropriate sample turnaround times.
  6. Rick Kane, FLOW Board Member

    Proactively, identify all users and stocks of PFAS and issue interim guidelines on proper handling and disposal. Already, abandoned drums of PFAS have been found in remote locations. Past experience with other hazardous chemicals indicates that illegal disposal and further contamination will occur. Best practices and approved disposal operations must be initiated as soon as possible. 

  7. Standards and regulations must be set for PFAS users and disposal operations, possibly starting with “maximum achievable control technology,” until risks have been identified and quantified.

The State of Michigan needs to continue to improve on communications transparency with a timetable, milestones, best practices, and newly identified risks on a statewide mapping system.


Michigan Groundwater Policy: A History

Over 100 Years of Contamination

Groundwater contamination in Michigan reaches back over a century. For example, the Antrim Iron Works in Mancelona in 1910 began discharging residues of chemicals recovered from its charcoal production process to an on-site depression that gradually released wastes to groundwater. Although the plant closed in 1944, extensive contamination lingered for generations. By 1960, a plume of groundwater contamination at the site was estimated to be three miles long and a half-mile wide. Placed on the national Superfund list in 1982, the Tar Lake site remains contaminated despite excavation of some soils and pumping of groundwater. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined additional soil excavation and expanded groundwater treatment was required.

Despite lessons learned from widespread contamination of surface water in the mid-20thCentury, policies of Michigan and many other states failed to expand groundwater protections. In a 1963 report, the U.S. Geological Survey noted, “Pollution of rivers and streams, especially in southern Michigan, has placed many communities and other water users in the ironic position of having available adequate quantities of surface water, but of a quality unfit for most uses. Similar pollution of ground water must be avoided.” Instead, as federal and state laws forced cleanup of surface waters, groundwater contamination accelerated.

The staff of the Michigan Water Resources Commission was sufficiently concerned in 1958 to propose a regulation requiring “all toxic and offensive wastes…shall be rendered innocuous by adequate treatment or by sufficient dilution before being permitted to enter the ground.” To support the proposal, the staff provided a list of 16 groundwater pollution sites. Despite this, the Commission tabled the proposed rule.

The emergency evacuation of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York in 1978 because of buried chemical wastes brought public attention to the crisis of contaminated groundwater. Congress passed the federal Superfund law, intended to fund cleanup of the worst sites, in 1980, enabling states to inventory and request cleanup assistance. Michigan submitted a list of over 80 sites, the second most of any state. But the full inventory was staggering. The tally included 63 sites that were fouling drinking water supplies, 649 sites of known or suspected groundwater contamination, and an estimated 50,000 sites with contamination potential. The more state authorities looked, the more contamination they found.

The passage of a solid waste management law in 1978 and a hazardous waste management law in 1979 curbed two of the principal threats to groundwater – landfills and spills of hazardous waste materials. In 1980, the department of natural resources finally promulgated the groundwater discharge rules the water resources commission had set aside in 1958. Regulations affecting petroleum storage in underground storage tanks that took effect in the late 1980s closed another loophole in groundwater protection. But it was too late to prevent many unnecessary health risks, an enormous cleanup bill to taxpayers, and a legacy of groundwater abuse that persists in widespread contamination.

Contaminated Sites and Sacrifice Zones

In 1995, Governor John Engler and the Legislature delivered another blow to groundwater. They removed from state law the presumption that polluted groundwater should be cleaned. One result is a long list of “sacrifice zones,” or sites where groundwater use is restricted or prohibited. In many locations, rather than attempting to clean up contaminated groundwater, the parties who own or seek to redevelop contaminated sites are allowed to leave the contaminants in place and instead work with the state to restrict access to it. An analogous policy for surface water would be to bar use of or access to polluted rivers and lakes – something the public would likely not tolerate.

State law sanctions two types of contaminated site exposure controls — restrictive covenants, which run with an individual property and bar certain uses of contaminated property, and institutional controls. Controls typically restrict uses on multiple properties and can affect large zones of groundwater. They include local ordinances or state laws and regulations that limit or prohibit the use of contaminated groundwater, prohibit the raising of livestock, prohibit development in certain locations, or restrict property to certain uses.

As of mid-February 2018, DEQ records showed 3,394 land use restrictions at contaminated sites across the state. Nearly 2,000 additional restrictions were on a list to be plotted and mapped. Of the 3,394 restrictions already recorded, 2,355 were restrictions on groundwater use. Some of the groundwater areas affected are several square miles in size. In effect, for the near future, the state has written off these areas of groundwater. Continuation of this approach will foreclose the use of significant groundwater resources by future generations.

Applicable Laws

Today, rather than protecting groundwater as a whole – or water throughout the hydrological cycle – Michigan law emphasizes regulation of categories of pollution sources that affect groundwater. This backward approach to resource protection blinds the state to the overall condition of Michigan’s groundwater – and artificially divides groundwater from the rest of the water cycle. The result is a degraded resource.

Federal laws do not fill the breach. The Clean Water Act does not generally apply to groundwater. The Safe Drinking Water Act provides some funding to states to assist communities in assessing threats to community water supplies, including groundwater supplies and to develop wellhead protection plans. But it does not provide a policy or regulate many groundwater contamination sources.

State law does lay down some groundwater protections. Michigan water quality protections in theory extend to groundwater. As defined in state statute, “Waters of the state” means groundwaters, lakes, rivers, streams, and all other watercourses and waters, including the Great Lakes within Michigan’s boundaries.

Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), Part 327, declares that groundwater and surface water are one single hydrologic system. Groundwater can recharge surface water, and surface water on occasion loses water to and recharges groundwater. The waters of the state should be considered one resource for any groundwater protection regulation or standard. 

Part 327 recognizes water in the Great Lakes basin and in Michigan is held in public trust for the benefit of citizens. This principle should govern every water statute, and any statute regulating activities that protect groundwater, to assure that contaminants do not impair the public trust in connected wetlands, creeks, streams, and lakes, and Great Lakes.

Because land use directly affects groundwater quality, land uses should be managed to protect groundwater quantity and quality, connected surface waters, and the public trust at least in hydrologically connected public trust streams and lakes.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Despite these legal provisions, in practice, Michigan treats groundwater and surface water differently. Drinking water standards apply to water drawn from subsurface sources and cleanup standards apply to contaminated groundwater, but ambient water quality standards do not apply. 

As an out-of-sight, out-of-mind resource, groundwater protection depends on our laws reflecting the science of our interconnected surface and groundwaters. Our laws need to catch up to science so we don’t continue to abuse this precious resource.