Tag: groundwater

3M and PFAS: An Attack on Public Health and Michigan’s Drinking Water Rules

Photos of Clark’s Marsh by Anthony Spaniola

By Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

It’s not often that two high-ranking officials in Michigan’s state government lash out at a company in strong language. But that’s what happened May 7 when Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Liesl Clark, the director of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) slammed 3M.

The trigger for their statement was a lawsuit filed April 21 by 3M in the Michigan Court of Claims to block state drinking water rules adopted in August 2020. The standards, which protect public health by setting maximum allowable levels of seven toxic PFAS compounds in public drinking water supplies, were promised by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in her 2018 campaign. They are among the strongest standards in the nation for these “forever chemicals,” which remain in the environment indefinitely. 3M has manufactured PFAS chemicals since the 1950s.

PFAS are a group of chemicals used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. These coatings can be used in such products as clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, firefighting foam, and the insulation of electrical wire. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), PFAS have been linked to human health effects, including an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, decreased vaccine response in children, an increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and decreased birthweight. PFAS have been found in at least 166 locations in Michigan. The CDC conducted a study between 2000-2014 that found 98% of Americans have some amount of PFAS in their blood, according to the State of Michigan.

3M knows it is responsible to address contamination in Michigan and it has been unwilling to do so,” said Attorney General Nessel. “Now, it wants to change the rules so that it can continue to shirk its responsibility to Michigan residents and to the health of the water resources that define our state.”

Nessel added, “We will not tolerate these poisons in our environment and our drinking water, and we will not tolerate a corporation like 3M putting its dollars ahead of our health and our water.” 

3M’s lawsuit argues that the rules adopted by Michigan are scientifically flawed and were approved via a process that the company terms hasty and designed to suit the Governor’s timeline. But the Michigan PFAS rules went through a rigorous process, including the establishment of an expert science panel to review studies and recommend appropriate standards. The draft rules were then subject to a public comment process and public review by two state committees.

Michigan’s decision to set state PFAS drinking water standards was due in part to the failure of the Trump Administration to pursue national standards. On Trump’s last full day in office January 19, his EPA finally announced a plan to set standards for the two most well-studied PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, five months after Michigan’s PFAS rules took effect. Federal rule-making can take several years.

Last month, the state’s Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) announced that Michigan’s approximately 2,700 municipal and other large public drinking water supplies are meeting the state’s new PFAS standards.

Attorney General Nessel in January 2020 sued 3M and 16 other companies for damaging Michigan’s environment by deliberately concealing the dangers of PFAS and withholding scientific evidence, and “intentionally, knowingly and recklessly” putting at risk Michigan’s natural resources and public health. In August 2020, she sued 3M and other manufacturers of firefighting foam containing PFAS. The litigation is still pending.

In 2018, the state of Minnesota settled a lawsuit against 3M Company for $850 million. The state sued 3M in 2010, alleging that the company’s production of PFAS had damaged drinking water and natural resources in the Twin Cities metro area. About $720 million of the settlement is being invested in drinking water and natural resource projects in the Twin Cities east metropolitan region.

During Drinking Water Awareness Week, FLOW asks, “Do You Know Where Your Water Comes From?”

Do you know where your drinking water comes from?

According to a poll undertaken by the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board in 2018, approximately one-fifth of surveyed residents of the Great Lakes Basin do not.

If the same ratio applies to Michigan, about 1.5 million adult residents of the state are uncertain where the water they drink originates.

During Michigan’s 2021 Drinking Water Awareness Week, May 2-8, filling knowledge gaps is a critical priority. The source of your drinking water is crucial, and so are threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to its contamination.

One surprising fact to many is that 45% of Michigan’s population drinks water from underground sources. Of that share, 1.25 million households with 2.6 million people are served by private wells; 1.7 million more people are served by community wells.

Awareness of that fact is vital for those who use well water. Unlike public water supplies, drinking water from private wells is not routinely tested for pollutants. Instead, the burden is generally on homeowners—and so is the testing cost, which can be steep. A test for toxic PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” with potentially major human health effects, costs up to $300. The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) has posted information and recommendations related to exposure to PFAS in drinking water.

Like all groundwater resources, private water wells are vulnerable to unseen pollution. FLOW has documented some of this pollution in two groundwater reports, including one released this March, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake. Toxic substances, nitrate, chloride, bacteriological, and other contaminants are found in private wells across Michigan. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development reports that elevated nitrate levels have been identified at 18 percent of private sites tested for nitrate, and half of these contain nitrates above public drinking water standards. Some contaminants, such as nitrate, do not affect the taste and appearance of drinking water and thus could be consumed without people noticing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that private well users have their water tested annually for contaminants. CDC also recommends keeping household hazardous materials such as paint, fertilizer, pesticides, and motor oil far away from wells.

For Michigan residents who receive drinking water from public water supplies, safety and contamination are regulated. Federal and state Safe Drinking Water laws require regular testing and treatment of public water. Customers of public water supplies are entitled to receive annual consumer confidence reports.

According to the state, 15 violations of drinking water quality standards detected in community water systems in 2017 involved indicators of fecal coliform, and all were corrected. There were 17 violations of chemical standards that year, two for nitrate, 12 for arsenic, and three for combined radium.

However, the dangerous lead contamination of the Flint public water supply in 2014-2015 exposed 99,000 residents of the city to this neurotoxin. The state and the city of Flint have established a lead exposure registry to identify eligible participants; monitor health, child development, service utilization, and ongoing lead exposure; improve service delivery to lead-exposed individuals; and coordinate with other community- and federally funded programs in Flint.

Many Michiganders drink bottled water—some as a short-term replacement for contaminated public or private water supplies, but far more for convenience and hydration. Many bottled water customers, however, do not realize that much bottled water comes from public supplies—they are drinking bottled tap water from systems paid for by taxpayers and marked up for significant profit by the private sector. Aquafina and Dasani labels in Michigan are drawn from the public supply for Southeast Michigan. And most of the remainder of bottled water packaged in Michigan—such as some of Nestlé’s operations—comes from groundwater that is tributary to Michigan’s streams and lakes—in effect, it and consequent private profits come from sources that belong to the people of Michigan under the public trust doctrine.

Drinking water is not to be taken for granted. Becoming aware of sources and threats is vital to our health. You can learn more about FLOW’s efforts to protect groundwater here on our website.

Michigan Needs a Groundwater Protection Act

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

Michigan groundwater policy has failed to evolve even as understanding has grown about groundwater’s importance and its interconnection with the Great Lakes. The simple fact that Michigan has approximately 14,000 groundwater contamination sites with an estimated cleanup bill of over $1 billion—most of it likely to be charged to taxpayers—should make groundwater a public policy imperative. The first major step toward fulfilling the public commitment to groundwater is the enactment of a Michigan Groundwater Protection Act with elements described in FLOW’s recent report, Deep Threats to our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency.

Michigan’s groundwater crisis has drawn little attention, but it is a worsening problem for our state. FLOW’s recent groundwater report, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake, spotlights its implications, and calls for a change in state law to protect our groundwater and public health. Click here for the Deep Threats fact sheet.

The lack of urgency in strengthening protection of Michigan’s groundwater is shortsighted. When rivers burned in 1969, federal lawmakers passed the Clean Water Act. When the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, Congress toughened safety requirements for shipping of petroleum products. 

Similarly, Michigan’s Legislature responded rapidly to a major mercury contamination crisis in 1970 and findings about the toxicity of PCBs in 1976. Yet spill after spill of hazardous materials into groundwater has happened for decades in Michigan, and the policy response has been incremental.

This is inexplicable when 45% of the state’s population gets its drinking water from groundwater wells. Groundwater is also critical to agriculture, manufacturing, and even recreation; steady, cool groundwater flow is vital to Michigan’s renowned trout streams, like the Au Sable River.

Michigan Law Views Groundwater as Expendable

Michigan law views groundwater from the vantage point of how much of it we can sacrifice instead of how much we must protect. Rather than establish an overarching protection policy, our statutes treat groundwater as something available for assimilating pollution. Scattered among our laws are provisions allowing differing treatment of groundwater depending on the pollution source–landfills, oil and gas development, underground injection of hazardous wastes, permitted discharges, agricultural pollution, management of contaminated sites, and more.

Michigan should formally adopt a Groundwater Protection Act that calls for protection of groundwater as part of a single, hydrological whole. In connection with streams, lakes, and wetlands, groundwater should be held in trust for the benefit of citizens, protected from pollution or impairment, a critical drinking water source, directly related to public health. The policy should emphasize the state’s primary duty to prevent pollution of groundwater or its connected waters of the state, and to support public education concerning groundwater consistent with this overall policy.

A Groundwater Protection Act is crucial to Michigan’s future. FLOW will ask citizens concerned about the protection of these vital waters to join with us in seeking action by state officials in months to come.

The Sixth Great Lake is Under Your Feet

The Au Sable River is a trout stream that like others in the region depends on a steady flow of cold, clean groundwater. Credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
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Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

It’s natural to stand on the shoreline of one of the Great Lakes and admire their vastness and majesty. But another abundant water resource in the basin is out of sight and rarely commands such appreciation.

That’s groundwater. Between 20-40 percent of the water budget of the lakes (the total water flowing in and out of the system) originates as groundwater. Without this unseen water, the Great Lakes would be dramatically different from those we know. Strengthening public appreciation of and public policy protecting groundwater is a fundamental part of Great Lakes stewardship.

Groundwater fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel and other rock. It is not an underground river or lake. But because of its sheer volume, scientists have dubbed groundwater in the Great Lakes basin as the sixth Great Lake.

The volume of fresh groundwater in the basin is about equal to the volume of water in Lake Huron, according to a 2015 report to the Great Lakes Executive Committee by the Annex 8 Subcommittee under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA).

Groundwater is critical to the ecology and economy of the Great Lakes region. Because it remains at a near-constant, cold temperature year-round, the discharge of groundwater to rivers supports trout streams. Groundwater also is crucial to the health of a rare type of wetland called prairie fens and supports the region’s public health and economy.

In Michigan, for example, groundwater is the source of drinking water for 45 percent of the state’s population, important to agricultural irrigation and a significant factor in manufacturing.

Despite its value, the region’s groundwater is widely contaminated from sources such as failing septic systems, inappropriate application of animal waste and agricultural fertilizers, abandoned industrial sites where chemicals were used and leaking landfills.

The widespread detection of groundwater contaminated by a class of chemicals known as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has revealed a source not previously recognized: airports and military bases where firefighting foams were heavily used in training exercises.

Cleaning up contaminated groundwater is often difficult and expensive. Sometimes, government agencies choose to leave it in place. The state of Michigan, for instance, has spent more than $27 million to provide affected homeowners with a clean public water supply rather than removing a toxic chemical known as TCE from a 13 trillion gallon plume of contaminated groundwater originating from a former chemical handling facility in Mancelona, east of Traverse City.

Although the exact influence of groundwater on the quality of the surface waters of the Great Lakes has not been pinpointed, plumes of contaminated groundwater often discharge to lakes and streams.

groundwater usgs
The top of the surface where groundwater occurs is called the water table. In the diagram, you can see how the ground below the water table is saturated with water (the saturated zone). Aquifers are replenished by the seepage of precipitation that falls on the land, but there are many geologic, meteorologic, topographic, and human factors that determine the extent and rate to which aquifers are refilled with water. Rocks have different porosity and permeability characteristics, which means that water does not move around the same way in all rocks. Thus, the characteristics of groundwater recharge vary all over the world. Credit: US Geological Survey

“Discharge of groundwater is likely an important vector [path] for some contaminants that affect the Great Lakes,” according to a 2016 report to the Great Lakes Executive Committee by the Annex 8 Subcommittee.

The GLWQA recognizes the interconnection between groundwater and the waters of the Great Lakes. It calls for Canada and the United States to identify groundwater impacts on the surface waters of the Great Lakes; analyze contaminants, including nutrients in groundwater, derived from both point and nonpoint sources; assess information gaps and science needs related to groundwater; and analyze other factors, such as climate change, that affect the impact of groundwater on Great Lakes water quality.

Individuals contribute to groundwater contamination, and also stewardship.  Simple actions you can take to protect groundwater include properly disposing of household hazardous wastes, reducing lawn fertilizer use or using phosphorus-free fertilizers, and supporting community groundwater mapping and education efforts.

Groundwater is out of sight and often out of mind, but its importance to life and the quality of the Great Lakes is undeniable. Taking care of the lakes means taking care of the groundwater that feeds them.

This blog was originally published by the International Joint Commission.

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