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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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 EmergencyC&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.
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
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 GenX, EPA 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.
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
Important and additional actions include, but are not limited to, the following:
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.
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.
New regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and/or state authority should use a precautionary approachto 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.
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.
Ensure an adequate number of water testing laboratories are in place with appropriate sample turnaround times.
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.
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.
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.
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.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are driving Michigan’s latest surface and groundwater crisis, infiltrating public waters with what the media and others describe as “emerging” contaminants. It turns out, however, that this class of persistent fluorinated chemicals, known as “forever” chemicals due to their extraordinarily strong bonds, is anything but emergent.
In fact, the responsible chemical manufacturers (DuPont, 3M, and six others), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) have known for decades about the toxicity of PFAS, adverse health effects on humans and the environment, and persistent nature of this family of 5,000+ chemicals. In 2017, the Pentagon identified 401 military sites with known or potential releases of these chemicals.
Complex litigation and class action lawsuits now decades old involving former DuPont employees, 3M, and other manufacturers established causation and linked adverse human impacts to known scientific toxicological effects. Just watch the film The Devil We Know for a gut-wrenching look at what happens to animals, humans, families, and communities poisoned by PFAS contamination when chemical manufacturers and regulatory agencies duplicitously cooperate, ignore science, and continue to produce these chemicals that are ubiquitously found in our food, bodies, drinking water, clothes, and other consumer products sold around the globe.
The most commonly known PFAS-containing household products include Scotchgard®, Teflon®, and Gore-Tex®. PFAS chemicals can be found just about everywhere on the planet, including in mammals in remote Arctic regions. How vast a problem is this? Vast and unprecedented. “An estimated five million to 10 million people in the United States may be drinking water laced with high levels of the chemicals,” according to the New York Times. And an alarming ninety-eight percent of Americans are estimated to have some level of these fluorinated chemicals in their blood.
In 2016, the EPA set a non-enforceable health advisory for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) levels in drinking water at a combined 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, however, have stated repeatedly that exposure to even lower concentrations may pose health risks. Despite all that we know, in 2019 Americans still have no federal drinking water standard and no federal cleanup standard to protect communities from harmful health effects from these forever chemicals.
At the State Level
Without federal leadership to set drinking water and cleanup standards, and Superfund polluter liability, the states have to fend for themselves to address a nationwide crisis affecting everything from food, drinking water, wastewater, public health, wildlife, commercial household products, and industry processes. States including Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas, Vermont, and Washington have or are in the process of developing policies to regulate drinking water and cleanup for this class of toxic chemicals. And another 11 states—Alabama, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—are considering following suit, according to Bloomberg Environment analysis (check out Safer States’ bill tracker to see what’s happening in your state).
In Michigan, DEQ scientist Robert Delaney warned the state about the PFAS health crisis as early as 2012 in a seminal report that was largely ignored. That same year, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a “Do Not Eat” fish advisory near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Given that these chemicals can bioaccumulate in aquatic ecosystems resulting in higher levels in fish tissue, Michigan issued a health advisory for surface waters at 11 to 12 ppt.
With the discovery of PFAS at Wurtsmith Air Force Base and post-Flint crisis, the State of Michigan launched the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) in 2017 to investigate the drinking water systems, wastewater treatment plants, schools, and landfills across the state. The more the State of Michigan looked, the more PFAS-contaminated sites have been found.
In January 2018, the DEQ issued an emergency clean-up standard at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in groundwater used for drinking water in Michigan. To date, the State of Michigan has tested 1,400 community water systems, and 90 percent of them have no detectable PFA levels. The 10 percent, however, are a significant concern. An executive order signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer strengthened MPART(the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team) so that it can efficiently inform the public about toxic contamination threats, locate additional PFAS contamination zones, and take action on behalf of Michigan residents, notably by protecting their drinking water supplies from the family of chemicals.
But more needs to be done. Now.
State attorneys general, for example, need to further collaborate and take leadership in building a nationwide coalition to initiate litigation and demand federal agency action for drinking water and cleanup standards. In 2018, Minnesota’s Attorney General won an $850 million settlement with 3M, a manufacturer of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
Where Things Stand
EPA’s recent release of a PFAS Action Plan is the latest example of government foot dragging in the extreme. The plan appears designed to slow the federal response and shift the burden to the states to set their own standards.
On March 1, Michigan’s U.S. Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, along with ten other Senators, introduced legislation to regulate PFAS as a “hazardous substance” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known also as CERCLA or Superfund. Under the bill, the EPA would have regulatory enforcement powers over PFAS and could require polluters to pay for PFAS groundwater contamination and clean up. U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell introduced identical legislation in the House (HB 545). On March 5, Governor Whitmer issued a supplemental budget request for $120 million in clean water funds, including $30 million for PFAS research and clean up.
Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
With a family of 5,000 chemicals infused in everything from clothes to household products to manufacturing, federal and state toxicologists and risk experts are working hard to understand and evaluate the science of exposure and health impacts, and to determine what standards define an acceptable risk. In Michigan, leading toxicologists include among others Dr. Rick Rediske, Carol Miller, Rita Loch-Caruso, Courtney Carignan, and Steve Safferman. Their findings are critical to informing and resolving current state and federal policy debates on safe drinking water and clean up levels.
This latest surface and groundwater crisis is a reminder of how interconnected we are, how vulnerable the water cycle is, and how national chemical policy reform is urgently needed to protect human health and the environment before chemicals are put into commerce and adversely contact with human and the natural environment.
I am drawn to the water. I live on a small peninsula on an inland lake and love to swim and kayak in its crystal blue water on hot summer days. I fish. I’ve been fly fishing since my early 20s, and I’ve spent countless hours over the decades wading the cold, clear streams thinking about flies and trout and the way the rippled feeding lanes might yield a clue to both. My late father thought the best way to keep his adult children coming back home was to organize a yearly charter fishing trip on Lake Michigan. It worked. So much so, that after many years of working in San Francisco and Chicago, I returned to my home state and the Great Lakes I came to love like no place else in the world.
But I don’t often think that much about the groundwater, unless I’m worried about my septic system clean out or reading another big story about the latest chemical contamination issue. And so when my longtime colleague and friend Dave Dempsey asked me to do a podcast series about groundwater, I had to think about what I even knew about the water under the ground. And I agreed to do it–not as a journalist, which is my background, or as an activist, which is not, but as a fellow Michigander with a lifelong connection of my own to the water of this state.
I thought it would be fun to do it as a different kind of trip “up north.” Not the kind of trip that millions of us take to the beaches and sunsets of the north, but a trip to the groundwater. And so that’s what this is. No breaking news here. No big call to action. Just an audio trip up north to experience the water we may not think about much that is, in fact, the lifeblood of this state, making all the rest of those wonderful trips up north even possible.
Sally Eisele is a nationally recognized public media professional with more than three decades of experience in journalism, editing, and broadcast newsroom management.
Sally’s work in public radio began in Michigan, where she worked at WKAR in Lansing and the Michigan Public Radio Network in its early years, covering politics and the environment. It includes more than a decade as managing editor at WBEZ public radio in Chicago. During that time, she reorganized the station’s news operation and led a team of reporters, editors, producers, and hosts to win many of the most prestigious national awards in American journalism.
Before that, she played a key editorial leadership role at KQED public radio in San Franscisco, where she was instrumental in the early organization of the station’s newsroom under its new all-news format in the 1990’s, was the founding senior producer of the award-winning California Report and helped guide the work that would eventually propel the station into its position now as the most listened-to public radio station in the country.
Sally now has a home in northern Michigan, where she is continuing her work as an independent writer and editor, focusing on rural issues, northern life, and the Great Lakes.
Michigan is called the Great Lakes state but is a poor steward of the sixth Great Lake, the water lying beneath Michigan’s ground. During National Groundwater Awareness Week March 10-16, FLOW is calling for state-level reforms to strengthen protection of Michigan’s groundwater.
The Invisible Resource
Groundwater is an immense and invisible resource. The volume of groundwater in the Great Lakes watershed is roughly equal to the volume of Lake Huron. Often overlooked because it is out of sight, Michigan’s groundwater is a giant asset and life-giving resource that fills wells, grows crops, fuels industry, and replenishes the Great Lakes.
Our content to be released throughout Groundwater Awareness Week includes an inspiring video narrated by poet and author Anne-Marie Oomen; two podcasts developed by writer and broadcast professional Sally Eisele; blog posts by FLOW experts shining a spotlight on PFAS and other groundwater pollution problems and protective solutions; and a fact sheet summing it all up.
In addition, FLOW is developing a groundwater map for release later this spring making it easy for you to learn about the resource across Michigan and in your region of the state.
Why Is Groundwater Important?
Michigan has more private drinking water wells than any other state. About 45% of the state’s population depends on groundwater as its drinking water source. Michigan industries withdraw 64 million gallons of groundwater daily from on-site wells. Over 260 million gallons of groundwater are withdrawn daily in Michigan for irrigation. As much as 42% of the water in the Great Lakes originates from groundwater.
For a resource so vital to human health and the economy, Michigan’s groundwater is shabbily treated in both policy and practice. Of the 50 states, only Michigan lacks a statewide law protecting groundwater from septic systems – and there are an estimated 130,000 leaking septic systems within Michigan’s borders. Other major threats include an estimated 6,000 contamination sites for which no private or public funding is available and widespread nitrate contamination from agricultural practices.
What Is Groundwater?
The hydrologic cycle governs water movement. Surface water is heated by the sun and evaporates into the atmosphere, forming clouds. These clouds condense and precipitation falls back to Earth as rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Water will then either return to a surface body of water or seep into the soil and move through the crust as groundwater.
Some may envision groundwater as an underground river or lake, but groundwater is held in tiny pore spaces in the rock and soil. After water is absorbed into the ground, gravity pulls the water down through the unsaturated zone. This area of the Earth’s crust is where tiny gaps between sediment grains, called pore spaces, are filled with either air or water. Water here can be trapped and used by plant roots or percolate downward into the saturated zone, where water exclusively fills the pore spaces.
The division between the unsaturated and saturated zone is called the water table. This two-dimensional plane often follows the contours of the surface above, moving seasonally based on precipitation events.
Groundwater in the saturated zone moves both vertically and horizontally, flowing towards a lower elevation discharge point like a stream or a lake. These surface bodies of water often rely on groundwater sources, in addition to precipitation, to recharge their water levels. After re-entering a surface body of water, the water continues through the hydrologic cycle.
As groundwater moves through the surface of the Earth, it often travels through an aquifer. Aquifers are underground formations that contain water at high enough concentrations that we can sustainably pump.
The two types of aquifers are called confined and unconfined aquifers, differing in whether or not there is an impermeable layer between the surface and the aquifer or not. Both types of aquifer can be used as a freshwater source, but unconfined aquifers are much more easily affected by surface actions and contamination and are more susceptible to pollution and degradation.
Almost all groundwater will discharge into surface water, unless it is extracted first. As a result, contaminated groundwater can degrade lakes, streams, and the Great Lakes.
There are an estimated 2.8 million trillion gallons of groundwater, 30.1 percent of the world’s freshwater.
An estimated 79.6 billion gallons of groundwater is withdrawn daily, or 26 percent of the water withdrawn in the U.S.
From 2010 to 2015, groundwater use in the United States increased by 8.3% while surface water use declined by 13.9%.
About a quarter of all U.S. rainfall becomes groundwater.
Hydrologists estimate U.S. groundwater reserves at 33,000 trillion gallons, equal to the amount discharged into the Gulf of Mexico by the Mississippi River in the past 200 years.
More than 15.9 million water wells serve the United States.
Thirty-eight percent of the U.S. population depends on groundwater for its drinking water supply, from both public and private wells.
Michigan, with an estimated 1.1 million households served by private water wells, has the largest such population of any state.
6 million Michigan citizens are served by private household wells.
The amount of fresh groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin is approximately equal to the amount of water in Lake Huron.
Direct and indirect discharges of groundwater to the Great Lakes are estimated to account for as much as 2.7% and 42% (respectively) of the inflows to the Great Lakes.
In Michigan alone, there are more than 15,000 documented cases of groundwater contamination that could, potentially, affect the quality of water in the Great Lakes.
Groundwater can become contaminated with a wide variety of chemicals and other substances including nutrients, salts, metals, petroleum hydrocarbons and fuel additives, chlorinated solvents and additives, radionuclides, pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants, pesticides, and microorganisms (including pathogens).
Groundwater may improve the water quality of contaminated surface waters, providing areas of contaminant refuges in groundwater discharge zones in an otherwise contaminated surface water body.
45% of Michigan citizens are served by groundwater.
Public water supplies using groundwater serve 1.7 million people in Michigan.
Michigan has 9% of the nation’s public groundwater supply systems, the highest share of any state (12,038 out of 128,371).
In 2017, Michigan used 2,888,325,875 gallons of groundwater.
Daily groundwater withdrawals in Michigan total over 260 million gallons for irrigation as well as 64 million gallons from on-site wells for industrial purposes.
When Michigan voters cast ballots November 6, they did not express support for attacks on the state’s water resources. But that’s what they may be getting from Lansing between now and the end of 2018.
In politics, lame ducks are officeholders whose successors have been elected but whose terms haven’t expired. “Lame” may imply powerlessness, but in fact lame duck officials possess a dangerous power. They can enact or repeal laws without accountability. Michigan’s lame duck Governor Rick Snyder and dozens of legislators who won’t return next year are plotting several attacks on the environment. To put these attacks in a legal framework, Article 4, Section 52 of our state’s constitution declares that the public’s concern for air, water, and natural resources is “paramount,” and mandates that the legislature “shall enact laws that protect the air, water, and natural resources from pollution, impairment, or destruction.” These lame duck officeholders are determined to do the opposite.
The most prominent of these is Senate Bill 1197, concerning Line 5 and the Mackinac Bridge, sponsored by lame duck Senator Tom Casperson, a Republican from Escanaba. It would grant Enbridge Energy a blessing to operate its risky 65-year-old petroleum pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac for another decade. It would do so by diluting the mission of the state’s Mackinac Bridge Authority to include acquisition of lands for, and ownership of, an oil tunnel beneath the Straits. The tunnel, if ever built, would expose the Authority and the taxpayers of Michigan to liability if it ever results in a spill or other accident.
Coupled with a proposed agreement between the state and Enbridge, the bill seeks to lock the state into a 99-year lease for the Canadian company to use the Straits as a shortcut for routing Canadian crude oil to the Canadian refinery center of Sarnia, Ontario. Why the haste to finalize a nearly century-long deal in a five-week lame duck session, especially when the new governor and attorney general have expressed opposition to the decaying pipelines and the replacement tunnel?
Concerned citizens from across Michigan are converging on the Capitol Tuesday, November 27 for a Lame Duck Lobby Day against Senate Bill 1197 and the bad Enbridge deal.
This ill-conceived legislation is not the only attack on environmental protections that could become law in the lame duck session. Others include:
Weakening the state’s wetland law to exclude many important, sensitive waters from protection. The proposal would essentially dumb down Michigan’s wetlands law to meet weak definitions being pursued by the Trump Administration and expose over half a million acres of wetlands to destruction.
Weakening the state’s approach to cleanup of chemical contamination, making it harder to set binding cleanup standards and to protect the most sensitive populations, women of child-bearing age and children.
Weakening protection of the environment from toxic coal ash by creating a state coal ash landfill program with minimal standards that could allow arsenic and lead in groundwater.
Setting weak standards for protection of groundwater and surface water from failing septic systems. Only Michigan of the 50 states lacks a statewide code for regulation of septic systems, but the bills on which the lame duck Legislature may act fall well short of what is needed.
A few proposals good for Michigan’s environment may get a hearing, too. Bills to create a sustainable funding source for replacing aging water infrastructure, water quality monitoring, recycling, and contaminated site cleanup may be considered, as well as a measure providing fair tax treatment for small-scale solar generation.
But the bad far outweighs the good in this lame duck Legislature. FLOW will work to keep you informed of these threats and what you can do about them during the remainder of 2018.