Tag: groundwater

Know the Source of Your Water—During Drinking Water Week, and Every Week

Turning on the tap and receiving drinking water is so commonplace that we often forget how vulnerable that water can be to contamination.

But Michiganders have reason to grasp the threat. The lead contamination crises in Flint and Benton Harbor have been news not only in the state, but across the country. Congress has approved $15 billion in federal funding to attack the problem of lead pipes nationally. The Michigan Legislature has appropriated almost $139 million to replace lead lines.

Lead pipes are just one of many threats to Michigan’s drinking water. The threat from other contaminants is greatest not to users of public drinking water systems, whose sources are predominantly surface water drawn from rivers and the Great Lakes and are regularly monitored, but to those who rely on the more than 1.25 million private wells in Michigan, which go largely untested. Many people don’t realize that 45% of Michigan’s population drinks water from underground sources. 

During Drinking Water Week, recognized May 1-7 by the State of Michigan and nationally, filling knowledge gaps is a critical priority. Knowing the source of your drinking water is crucial, and so is knowing about threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to prevent its contamination.

Unlike public water supplies, drinking water from private wells is not government-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.

Knowing the source of your drinking water is crucial, and so is knowing about threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to prevent its contamination.

Click above to read our groundwater report, “Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake.”

FLOW has documented some of the pollution that threatens groundwater in two reports, including Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake. Toxic substances, nitrate, chloride, bacteria, 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. Nitrate is among the contaminants that do not affect the taste and appearance of drinking water and thus could be consumed without people noticing in the absence of testing.

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

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.

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 that detail levels of key contaminants and any violations of drinking water standards.

In 2020, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), there were 922 Safe Drinking Water Act violations in 334 community supplies. Most of these violations related to treatment or reporting requirements, not violations of health-based drinking water standards.

Click on the image to learn about FLOW’s “Get Off the Bottle” campaign.

Many Michiganders drink bottled water—some as a short-term replacement for contaminated public or private water supplies, but far more do so for the perceived 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 BlueTriton’s (formerly Nestle’s)—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 individual, family, and public health. Learn more about FLOW’s efforts to protect groundwater here on our website.

Our Drinking Water Lacks the Protection It Deserves

Acclaimed author and FLOW Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey stands on the shore of Lake Michigan’s West Grand Traverse Bay.


Editor’s note: This opinion article was originally published on April 2, 2022, in the Lansing State Journal.

By Dave Dempsey

A natural resource on which nearly half the population of Michigan depends every day is one that most of us rarely think about: Groundwater, and it’s especially critical in mid-Michigan. The tri-county area depends almost exclusively on groundwater as a drinking water source—both from public wells managed by the Lansing Board of Water and Light and the City of East Lansing, and thousands of private wells in outlying areas.

Some 45 percent of Michigan’s population gets drinking water from underground, but because it is out of sight it is often out of mind. Its invisible nature has made groundwater vulnerable to neglect and mismanagement. Michigan is pocked with more than 14,000 groundwater contamination sites, including one of the nation’s largest, a 13 trillion-gallon plume contaminated by the toxic chemical TCE (trichloroethylene). Due to funding limitations, the state is addressing only two percent of these polluted sites this year.

Groundwater is vital globally, too. The salty oceans are not drinkable and constitute approximately 97 percent of all the world’s water. About two percent of all water is fresh water frozen at the poles or in glaciers. Of the remaining one percent, almost all of it is groundwater, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

If Michigan’s groundwater were visible, it would be hard to miss. If combined, all the groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin is approximately equal in volume to Lake Huron—a sixth Great Lake of sorts.

But groundwater is not an underground pool. Instead, it fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel and other rock—much the same way that water fills a sponge. And it lacks the protection it deserves.

Although 1.25 million private water wells supply drinking water to more than two million Michiganders, there is no regular safety testing of that water. Thousands of these wells are contaminated with nitrates. Michigan is the last holdout among the 50 states in protecting groundwater and public health from 130,000 failing septic systems that discharge human waste.

My organization, For Love of Water, is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City. Last month we sponsored a webinar on Michigan’s groundwater challenges and opportunities on World Water Day, where scientists and public officials spoke of the urgent need to educate Michiganders about the importance of groundwater.

Learning about groundwater is the necessary first step toward action, and protective action is what Michigan needs to safeguard its groundwater for current and future generations.

Dave Dempsey is senior advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. He is the author of several books on Michigan’s environment. Learn more about FLOW’s groundwater-protection program, including our latest report and fact sheet.

Public Trust Bill Package Boosts Groundwater Protection in Michigan

Note: This is a FLOW media release issued March 17, 2022. Members of the media can reach FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood at [email protected] or cell (570) 872-4956 or office (231) 944-1568.


FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood expressed strong support for legislation introduced in Lansing today that would shore up public trust protections for the Great Lakes and groundwater against water-bottling companies thirsting for profits and strengthen safeguards for waterways on state land.

“The Great Lakes must never be for sale,” Kirkwood said in a video-recording message for the press conference announcing the legislation. “And Michigan’s groundwater must never become privatized and siphoned away.”

Watch Liz Kirkwood’s video message below:

The three-bill package (House Bills 5953, 5954, and 5955) introduced by Michigan Reps. Yousef Rabhi, Laurie Pohutsky, Rachel Hood, and Padma Kuppa would close the legal loophole in the Great Lakes Compact that allows private interests and international regimes to take massive amounts of Great Lakes water as long as it is extracted in containers of 5.7 gallons or less. The legislation also would explicitly apply public trust protections to groundwater, which provides drinking water to 45% of Michiganders and helps recharge the Great Lakes, and would direct the Department of Natural Resources to be strong public trustees of the lands and waters it manages. Rep. Kuppa also plans to introduce a groundwater resolution on March 22, World Water Day.

“These prudent changes will ensure that Michigan has the ability to stop privatization of the Great Lakes and groundwater, and reject future water withdrawals that are not in the public’s interest,” said Kirkwood, an environmental attorney who directs FLOW (For Love of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “We must protect every arc of the water cycle.”

Michigan’s groundwater supplies drinking water to 45% of Michiganders. Groundwater that discharges to lakes and streams also is crucial to sustain coldwater fisheries, stream ecology, and wetlands, and also accounts for approximately 20-40% of the volume of the Great Lakes.

“Without these protections explicitly in place we face the very real possibility that our most valuable natural resource, the water which defines our state, could be treated as a commodity for sale like oil,” Kirkwood said, “and virtually eliminate the state’s ability to protect this vital resource.”

Groundwater, though Invisible, Is Critical for Our Survival

Groundwater painting by Glenn Wolff.

What’s the natural resource that is critical to the survival of billions of human beings but invisible to the vast majority of them?

The answer is groundwater, both in Michigan and globally. Out of sight, but not detached from our economy and health, groundwater plays a critical role in Michigan communities, supplying 45 percent of Michigan’s population with drinking water. Yet groundwater is a neglected and much-abused part of our state’s natural endowment.

This year, groundwater will be in the spotlight on the annual World Water Day, March 22. Since 1993, World Water Day has underscored the importance of safe, clean, and affordable water, and the threat to human health and survival among the two billion people on Earth who lack access to it.

In the buildup to March 22, groups around the world will hold events and launch projects on the groundwater theme. On World Water Day itself, the United Nations World Water Development Report will be released, recommending policy direction to decision makers. A United Nations Groundwater Summit will take place in December 2022.

The UN catalogues the following global groundwater challenges:

Agriculture: About 40 percent of all the water used for irrigation comes from aquifers. Especially in water-scarce countries, the provision of cheap energy for pumping groundwater for irrigated agriculture can lead to groundwater depletion and declining water quality, with potentially severe consequences for those who now depend on groundwater irrigation. Furthermore, the use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture is a serious threat to groundwater quality.

Borders: Most of the world’s large aquifers cross international borders. Some 468 transboundary aquifers have been identified worldwide; hence, most countries share groundwater resources. Globally, of the eight largest aquifers under stress, six are transboundary.

Finite: There are limitations to groundwater use, such as groundwater quality and high costs of abstraction (from deep aquifers). Furthermore, groundwater is not always available in sufficient quantities in the places where there is the highest human demand for water. For instance, the Asia-Pacific region has the lowest per capita water availability in the world, with groundwater use in the region predicted to increase 30 per cent by 2050.

Natural and Human Pollution: The potential threats to the quality of groundwater are natural contamination and contaminant sources from land use and other human activities. Two of the most widely spread natural contaminants are arsenic and fluoride. Naturally occurring arsenic pollution in groundwater affects millions of people on all continents. Therefore, groundwater quality needs to be assessed and monitored regularly. Human-caused contamination includes the effects of agricultural intensification, urbanization, population growth and climate change.

World Water Day’s groundwater focus is timely observance for Michigan, which faces a groundwater crisis. Consider:

  • There are an estimated 26,000 contamination sites needing state funding for cleanup, and at the current rate of remediation, they won’t all be addressed for decades.
  • Although 1.25 million private water wells supply drinking water to more than two million Michiganders, there is no regular safety testing of that water.
  • High-risk toxic chemicals, including TCE, which has contaminated groundwater in more than 300 known Michigan locations, are still in widespread use.
  • Michigan is the last holdout among the 50 states in protecting groundwater and surface water from failing septic systems, of which an estimated 130,000 exist in Michigan and whose pollution has been linked with disease.
  • Michigan laws protecting groundwater are fragmented.


FLOW’s commitment to educating Michiganders on the importance of protecting groundwater and encouraging them to act reaches back several years. In 2018, we published our first groundwater report, The Sixth Great Lake: the Emergency Threatening Michigan’s Overlooked Groundwater Resource. In 2021, we published a second, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency. We also built a groundwater story map and posted fact sheets about the value of groundwater. And we hosted a groundwater webinar.

In addition to pursuing policy reforms strengthening groundwater protection, FLOW is currently involved in two major groundwater projects. We have formed and convened the Michigan Groundwater Table that includes experts and advocates from a cross-section of interests. Members of the table are reviewing groundwater issues and attempting to identify common findings and recommendations.

FLOW also is a partner with Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research in a project commissioned by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to assess the economic impact of state policies that leave contaminated groundwater in place rather than cleaning it up. At such locations, responsible parties restrict access to drinking water and exposure to contaminated soils, meaning contamination remains and, because it is out of sight, such pollution may spread.

There is much more to do to protect Michigan’s groundwater, and World Water Day is a good opportunity to learn about that.

Pollution Prevention Is Source Water Protection

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

This week is the inaugural Source Water Protection Week. Although the term “source water” is unfamiliar to many, the resource to which it refers is critical to the health of millions of Michigan residents.

“Source water” refers to the untreated source of public drinking water supplies. For most municipal supplies in Michigan, source water is drawn from the Great Lakes, including Grand Rapids and metropolitan Detroit, although a few communities have river or inland lake water sources. Several large communities, such as Lansing and Mt. Pleasant, use groundwater as source water and serve about 1.7 million Michigan residents. (For about 1.25 million Michigan households serving 2.6 million residents, private well water is the source of drinking water.) 

Drinking water sources for all Michigan communities served by public supplies can be found here.

Contamination of source water, over decades, has affected scores of Michigan communities, often at great public or private expense for treatment and cleanup. For example, a chemical facility and railroad paint shop threatened the groundwater well field serving Battle Creek, and resulted in tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. It is far cheaper to prevent contamination by keeping polluting facilities and activities away from source waters.

Individuals can also help prevent contamination of drinking water sources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers ideas here.

SepticSmart Week: Protect It and Inspect It

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Click here to see a larger version of the SepticSmart graphic.

By Dave Dempsey

Groundwater, a critical part of Michigan’s water cycle, is out of sight—and so is the groundwater pollution that contaminates thousands of drinking water wells and reaches hundreds of rivers and lakes across the state. Despite its invisibility to the naked eye, groundwater contamination sickens Michigan residents. About 45% of the Wolverine State’s population drinks well water.

Among the biggest culprits in degrading Michigan’s groundwater are failing septic systems. Designed to treat household wastewater in areas not served by sewers and buried beneath the land surface, septic systems require proper maintenance if they are to avoid polluting groundwater. Such maintenance includes regular inspections and, when necessary, pumping out of the wastewater. But because there are no inspection and maintenance requirements in most areas of the state, an estimated 130,000 septic systems in our state are failing. That means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes, and streams.

September 20-24 is SepticSmart Week in Michigan and nationally—an opportunity for owners of property with septic systems to learn about the threat failing systems pose to our water resources, and ways to prevent or minimize such pollution. As our allies protecting Crystal Lake in Benzie County, Michigan, point out: Being septic smart can extend the life of a septic system, keep well water safe, protect the environment and prevent accidents at home.

FLOW’s Groundbreaking Reports on Groundwater

As FLOW described in our fall 2018 report on groundwater contamination in Michigan, and a second report we released earlier this year, our state is the only one of the 50 states that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of small, mainly domestic septic systems. Because of the gap in state protections, some counties, townships, cities, and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements, but they are relatively few out of Michigan’s approximately 2,000 local units of government.

Septic systems are small-scale wastewater treatment options, used when a home or complex cannot easily be connected to a municipal sewer system. Raw sewage and wastewater (e.g., bath water and dishwater) are first pumped from the home into the septic tank. This is an underground, sealed, concrete tank where the household waste is treated. Here, solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and materials such as oil form a layer of scum on top. Bacteria in the tank break down the solid waste, while the wastewater migrates out of the septic tank and into the drain field. Perforated pipes distribute the liquid wastewater throughout the drain field. Once out of the pipes, the wastewater effluent seeps through a gravel layer, then through the soil. Both filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water.

Leaking or malfunctioning septic systems allow organic wastewater compounds like nitrate and E. coli to percolate through the soil and enter the groundwater. Leakage and effluent runoff are also major contributors to E. coli levels in surface water. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has identified 196 rivers, lakes, and beaches with E. coli levels over the EPA limit. 

Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage from failing septic systems were pumped into surface water in Michigan. A 2015 study headed by Dr. Joan Rose, co-director of Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and Center for Water Sciences, sampled 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 more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria were found in the water.

Failing septic systems have been correlated with disease. A 2003 study found that septic system densities were associated with endemic diarrheal illness in central Wisconsin. 

Septic Systems and Emerging Contaminants

Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants are found in household wastes, whether they discharge to publicly owned sewage systems or septic tanks. Twenty different studies on septic systems have identified 45 contaminants in septic effluent, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine. Septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkylphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including the carcinogenic flame retardant TCEP, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole.

One cause of the septic system pollution problem is homeowners’ lack of awareness. A 2018 study of mid-Michigan residents likely to have septic systems, conducted by Public Sector Consultants, found:

  • Approximately 30 percent of residents did not know they have a septic system. 
  • The average age of septic systems was 28 years old. 
  • Forty-three percent of respondents indicated they had not had their system pumped within the last 5 years, and 25 percent indicated that they did not pump or maintain their system on a regular basis.
  • Only 15 percent of residents were aware of the normal lifespan of a septic system. 

Only 11 of 83 Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first 6 years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system or other wastewater treatment.

Tips for Properly Maintaining Septic Systems

Protect It and Inspect It: Homeowners should generally have their system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to their state or local health department’s recommendations. Tanks should be pumped when necessary, typically every three to five years.

Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain. These substances can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.

Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems.

Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water-efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the daytoo much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.

Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.

Pump your Tank: Routinely pumping your tank can prevent your septic system from premature failure, which can lead to groundwater contamination.

Test Your Drinking Water Well: If septic systems aren’t properly maintained, leaks can contaminate well water. Testing your drinking water well is the best way to ensure your well water is free from contaminants.

Source: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

Groundwater Threats: Michigan Should Act with Urgency to Pass a State Law to Control TCE

Photo courtesy of the Ohio Department of Health.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in FLOW’s 2021 Report: Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency. 

By Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

The many chemical contaminants in Michigan’s groundwater, coupled with the lack of environmentally sustainable federal and state chemical policies, continue to put Michigan at risk. An example is trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing manufactured chemical that has contaminated groundwater at more than 300 locations in Michigan.

In 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE.

FLOW’s 2021 Deep Threats groundwater report

 Michigan should follow suit.

Commonly used as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts during manufacturing processes or to make additional chemicals, TCE has also been used to extract greases, oils, fats, waxes, and tars by the textile industry; in dry cleaning operations; and in consumer products such as adhesives, paint removers, stain removers, lubricants, paints, varnishes, pesticides, and cold metal cleaners.

TCE released into the environment can pollute soil, groundwater, and the air. TCE’s high mobility in soil often results in groundwater contamination. TCE is slow to degrade and time-consuming to mitigate when it contaminates soil and groundwater. When spilled on the ground, TCE can travel through soil and water and contaminate drinking water supplies, including public and private wells.

In 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE. Michigan should follow suit.

It can also evaporate. TCE vapors can enter buildings through cracks in the foundation, pipes, and sump and drain systems, thus contaminating indoor air. This phenomenon is known as vapor intrusion. At several Michigan locations where housing and office structures were built on contamination sites, TCE was left in soils rather than being excavated and removed, and has vaporized into these buildings through foundations and basements. In some cases, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has temporarily evacuated occupants of the buildings because of the danger of air inhalation of TCE.

TCE has been characterized as carcinogenic to humans through all routes of exposure and poses a significant human health hazard. Exposure to large amounts of the chemical may lead to coma, nerve damage, or death. TCE is known to interfere with early life development and lead to developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and neurotoxicity. This chemical has also been linked to damage to eyesight, hearing, the liver, the kidney, balance, heartbeat, blood, nervous system, and respiratory system. 

In the workplace, exposure to TCE may cause scleroderma, a systemic autoimmune disease, and, in men, it has been observed to result in decreases to sex drive, sperm quality, and reproductive hormone levels. TCE has been linked to Parkinson’s disease. There is controversy over a decision made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Trump Administration to reverse findings that TCE exposure to human embryos causes heart defects.

Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1977 banned the use of TCE in food, cosmetic, and drug products in the United States. In Canada, TCE is no longer manufactured, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999 is intended to significantly reduce the use and release of TCE as a solvent degreaser into the environment. Several other countries, including Sweden and Germany, have regulations to control the use, and subsequent risks, of TCE.

In November 2020 a U.S. EPA study found that 52 of 54 uses of TCE still permitted present unreasonable risk to worker and consumer health. The EPA has two years to finalize a rule to reduce the risks posed by the 52 uses.

State action also has a place in efforts to protect human health from TCE. On May 16, 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the U.S. to ban high-risk uses of TCE. In effect, beginning June 1, 2022, any facility that is required to have an air emissions permit by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency may not use TCE.

This ban was enacted largely due to the work of the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG) of White Bear Township, Minnesota, which sought the ban after the Water Gremlin, a local fishing sinker manufacturer, had admitted to leaking elevated levels of TCE for nearly 17 years.

Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water. Taxpayers have spent more than $27 million to provide safe drinking water to Mancelona residents of  properties whose private wells have been contaminated by TCE.

Several case studies have been performed to analyze the effectiveness of TCE alternatives in the United States. One example is a Schick facility in Verona, Virginia, that manufactures a variety of steel blades and uses TCE in both cleaning and degreasing operations. The company made TCE elimination a priority. The resulting process modifications reduced occupational and public risk and resulted in an approximate cost reduction of $250,000 from reduced energy use and material and hazardous waste disposal costs. Several companies in Michigan have also made the switch to TCE-free degreasing products.

Given the uncertainty of federal policy, Michigan should not wait to take action to limit most TCE uses, just as Michigan did not wait for the EPA to set enforceable standards for toxic PFAS in drinking water. Because it has a paramount interest in protecting the health of its residents, Michigan should act with urgency to pass a state law to control TCE.

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.