Meeting a January 31 deadline for public comment, FLOW urged state officials to adopt standards protecting the health of Michigan residents from PFAS chemicals detected in drinking water supplies serving 1.9 million residents.
FLOW also appreciates the 42 people who responded to a FLOW alert and submitted their own PFAS comments to the state.
Joining a broad coalition of environmental, public health and grassroots citizen organizations, FLOW told the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to adopt the proposed science-based standards. They would put Michigan among the leading states moving ahead to protect residents from these long-lasting toxic chemicals.
“It is imperative for Michigan to promulgate the proposed rules as soon as practicable,” FLOW wrote. “Testing continues to turn up new sites of PFAS contamination in Michigan, many of them exposing citizens to substantial health risks. Federal rules are likely years away and may not provide the level of protection that the people of Michigan want and need for public health and the environment. We applaud Governor Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) for your initiative to address the problem head-on.”
David Long, head of Environmental Solutions LLC, wrote last week in a blog post on FLOW’s website, “Studies show evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals persist in the body for a long time and can accumulate. In laboratory animals, researchers found that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.
“Consistently elevated cholesterol levels have been found in people with detectable levels of PFOA or PFOS. Lower infant birth weights, immune system effects, cancer (PFOA), and thyroid disruption (PFOS) have also been associated, albeit less frequently, with PFOA or PFOS.”
In addition to supporting the general outline of the standards, FLOW urged EGLE to:
Require a review of the rules in two years to take into account emerging science;
Require frequent monitoring of public water supplies to learn more about seasonal patterns and sources of PFAS;
Strengthen protection of infants and children.
Governor Whitmer has said she hopes the rules can be made final by summer.
A Michigan state administrative law judge, after almost a year and a half delay, recently decided he had no jurisdiction to rule on a citizen challenge of a proposed potash mine that would suck enormous amounts of groundwater out of an aquifer near the town of Hersey—near Reed City and the Huron-Manistee National Forests. The mine, if approved, would drain groundwater supporting sensitive wetlands and result in disposal of contaminated water into aquifers.
Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) filed the challenge after the state in June 2018 granted permits for eight solution mining wells and three non-hazardous brine disposal wells for the potash mining operation, despite environmental opposition to the project. The proposed potash mining operation in an Osceola County wetland complex would use 725 million gallons of Michigan groundwater per year, according to the state. Potash is used as fertilizer.
Michigan Potash Co. LLC proposes to extract potash salt through the process of solution mining, by pumping water or brine into targeted zones to dissolve the underground potash. The resulting dissolved, potash-rich brine is returned to the surface where it is evaporated to recover potash and food grade salt, state officials say.
The process creates potash deficient brine and water that is recycled in a closed loop system and reused. The three proposed nonhazardous disposal wells will handle the residual brine that is no longer usable for solution mining.
Administrative Law Judge Daniel Pulter, just days before a scheduled hearing on MCWC’s challenge and more than a year after the state issued the permits, determined he had no jurisdiction to rule on the challenge. The action baffled opponents of the mine.
“The upshot of all this,” said MCWC chairperson Peggy Case, “is that for the past year and a half, no one in Lansing has been looking into the serious issues involving Michigan Potash’s plan and site.” But MCWC vows to forge ahead, taking its challenge to the Environmental Permit Appeals Board within the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). A hearing on jurisdiction is expected on March 20.
Case notes that Pulter’s non-decision decision dealt only with permits to drill the 11 wells. Additional permits will be required for the location of a refinery, high-pressure brine pipelines and handling facilities, shipping routes, and storage. The company has not performed any tests to establish that it can safely withdraw 5 to 10 times more fresh water than Nestlé is taking for its bottled water six miles away.
“People ask us why we’re continuing our fight,” Case said. “In short, we believe that we have no choice. High-risk, intensive industrial activity at such a uniquely vulnerable site is not something we’re willing to accept without a fight. Michigan already has far too many areas that have become ‘water sacrifice zones’.”
“As Michiganders, we view fresh clean ground and surface waters as our birthright.”
Although budget talks between Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature are strained at best — as the two sides appear deadlocked over road funding — it does appear her request for significant one-time funding for clean water for the fiscal year 2020 starting October 1 will survive the process, with some changes made to fit legislative priorities. On Tuesday, Sept. 24, the Legislature approved the water money and will send the bill to Whitmer’s desk for signature within a few days.
The action comes after a long delay in consideration of the Governor’s proposal. “Communities across Michigan are grappling with drinking water contamination, like toxic PFAS chemicals and lead from old pipes, yet discussion about it has been noticeably absent in Lansing as they work to pass a budget. Clean, safe drinking water is not a partisan issue and should be a top priority, not an afterthought,” said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV), earlier this month.
A House-Senate conference committee had sent a proposed appropriation for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to the full State House and Senate. FLOW’s allies in Lansing at the Michigan Environmental Council and Michigan League of Conservation voters say the conference bill contains $120 million in one-time money for drinking water protection, including:
UPDATE: Governor Whitmer vetoed $15 million intended for dealing with PFAS at municipal airports on the grounds that a broader use of the funding for PFAS us needed.
$1.9 million and the equivalent of 10 staff positions for a drinking water compliance unit to provide technical assistance to communities on the lead and copper rule.
$5 million as a state match for federal drinking water revolving loan fund dollars.
$307,000 additional funding for contaminated site investigations.
An item of concern, added by legislators, is an earmark of $150,000 for the Environmental Rules Review Committee to contract with consultants. This committee was created by the Legislature and signed into law by former Governor Snyder to impede environmental rulemaking.
UPDATE: Governor Whitmer vetoed the $150,000 in funding for this committee.
The Governor also requested $60 million for school hydration stations to protect children from drinking lead-contaminated water, but so far the Legislature has not included the money in the fiscal year 2020 budget.
Dave Dempsey is the Senior Policy Advisor at FLOW.
Don’t do it in the river! Get your septic system checked, and push your elected leaders for a statewide inspection code. Click here for a (humorous) video of what happens when septic waste reaches our beloved rivers.
By Dave Dempsey
Most Michiganders don’t know that September 16-20 is Septic Smart Week — and that an estimated 130,000 septic systems in our state are failing. In many cases that means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes and streams.
As FLOW described in our fall 2018 report on groundwater contamination in Michigan, our state is the only of the 50 states that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of small, mainly domestic septic systems. Some counties, townships, cities and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements.
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 Environmental Quality (MDEQ, now 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 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.
Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants like pharmaceutical residues and endocrine disruptors are found in household wastes whether they discharge to publicly-owned sewage systems or septic tanks. Little groundwater monitoring is done to identify these substances in groundwater.
In a 2017 journal article in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 20 different studies on septic systems, identifying 45 contaminants, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine. The analysis found that septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkyphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including TCEP, a carcinogenic flame retardant, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole. “In high density areas where you have a large number of homes with their own septic systems, these systems are likely the primary source of emerging contaminants in the groundwater,” said Laurel Schaider, the study’s lead author.
Eleven Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first six years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system.
Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy adviser.
Septic Smart Information
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is promoting Septic Smart Week with a variety of information tools. Those include posters, tips and a new homebuyer’s guide. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) also offers helpful information.
This trailer for a video documentary produced by Joe VanderMeulen of NatureChange and sponsored by FLOW, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC), Leelanau Clean Water, and the Benzie Conservation District underscores the serious health risks posed by a hidden pollution source fouling groundwater, lakes, streams and drinking water across Michigan. Click here for the full video.
Late last year, the Michigan Legislature approved $15 million in annual funding for recycling programs. To learn more about this initiative, FLOW interviewed Matt Flechter, Recycling Market Development Specialist at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. Flechter assists recycling programs by growing the Michigan supply chain so the valuable commodities that businesses need make their way from the curb to new products. He is a longtime member of the Michigan Recycling Coalition board of directors and the former chair of the Mid-America Council of Recycling Officials. Flechter completed the Great Lakes Leadership Academy Advanced Leader program in 2017. Flechter is a graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Lyman Briggs and is always surprised by the number of other Peace Corps volunteers in the recycling world. For 19 years, he has worked to transform materials once thought of as waste into jobs, energy savings, and improved quality of life. He has always viewed recycling, as a gateway to greater environmental, economic, and social sustainability where individuals can see the positive impact of their daily decisions.
How important is the recycling funding approved by the Legislature?
The recycling funding included in Renew Michigan is vitally important. For over 20 years, the Michigan recycling industry has watched other states pass us by with strong recycling market development, education, and infrastructure initiatives. Now that long-term, stable funding is secured, we can begin the process of building upon our long history as a leader in managing materials in an economically and environmentally sound way.
But while the funding is important, Michiganders spend over $1 billion annually on waste management, so $15 million is only a small part of a much larger system. Furthermore, while it is a significant increase from years past, it still is lower than what other states spend, especially states with leading recycling programs. For example, Pennsylvania spends $37 million per year and Minnesota spends $65 million per year.
In what categories is the $15 million divided?
The $15 million in annual funding is allocated to support local recycling collection, processing, and end-use activities. A special focus on strong planning and recycling market development activities is noted.The funding goes to:
Materials management planning, including grants to counties, regional planning agencies, municipalities, and other entities responsible for preparing, implementing, and maintaining materials management plans.
Local recycling programs, including grants to local units of government and nonprofit and for-profit entities for recycling infrastructure, local recycling outreach campaigns, and other costs necessary to support increased recycling.
Market development, including grants to local units of government and nonprofit and for-profit entities for purchasing equipment, research and development, or associated activities to provide new or increased use of recycled materials to support the development of recycling markets.
Recycled materials market development has been a need for a long time. What have we learned works and doesn’t work and how will this money be used differently from the past?
Recycling and using recycled materials is not just about using fewer new materials and saving landfill space. Recycling is about protecting the environment and growing the economy through expanding job opportunities, reducing greenhouse gasses, protecting air and water quality, and supporting healthy communities. The best market development initiatives understand that increasing the use of recycled materials hit on all of these metrics. Selecting projects must be done thoughtfully, while looking at the big picture impacts they will have. Further, the best market development programs recognize the importance of measuring the life cycle impacts of materials choices throughout a product’s useful life, not just end of life disposal. It is our goal to use the market development funds to encourage the circular thinking that is beginning to take hold in industry.
We’ve heard a lot about the China market for recycled materials shutting down. How big a problem is this for Michigan? How will your strategy address this?
The turmoil facing global recycling markets precipitated by China’s import restrictions has struck a blow to sustainable materials management everywhere. Fortunately, for Michigan, we have access to strong regional markets for our paper, metal, plastic, and other materials collected at our loading docks and curbs. Michigan industry still needs those materials, and in most cases could use even more than we are sending to them. For example, CleanTech in Dundee, Michigan, imports plastic bottles from as far away as Texas to use in their manufacturing process to make new bottles. Meanwhile far too many detergent bottles and water bottles are being landfilled in Michigan because a lack of convenient recycling opportunities. While we may have strong markets, the price received by recycling programs for their recyclables has dropped dramatically because of restricted demand in China. Recycling programs are feeling this economic pinch and are adjusting as best they can.
The Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy is focusing on two main areas to address these global market challenges. First, we are working to improve the quality of the recyclable materials collected. We are expanding our efforts to help communities and recycling service providers reduce contamination by helping to inform residents and businesses on how to properly use their recycling collection system. Less Christmas lights, bagged recyclables, half-full ketchup bottles, and other common contaminants in the recycling bin help improve the marketability of collected materials and decrease costs for recycling operations.
Second, we are focusing on growing domestic markets for recycled materials. The more end-markets we have for our recyclables the lower our transportation costs—both economically and environmentally speaking. Furthermore, keeping materials closer to home means more jobs for Michigan residents.
Do you have goals for recycling percentages that you hope to achieve with the new funding?
Michigan’s recycling rate is still at the bottom at around 15% where the national average is around 34%. We know that by adopting best practices in residential single-family and multi-family recycling, organics collection, public space recycling, event recycling, waste reduction, and business/commercial recycling, we can achieve a leading recycling program that triples our current recycling rate. We are beginning to see progress. It is the goal of Michigan to achieve a 45% recycling rate, and as an interim step a 30% recycling rate by 2025.
Are there other recycling policy needs?
In addition to the long-needed funding support recently received, Michigan needs accompanying policy changes if we are to achieve the goal of returning our state to a leadership position in recycling. Our agency has worked for over three years with a large group of stakeholders to rewrite Michigan’s solid waste laws to refocus our efforts on materials management rather than just disposal. The policy changes address local planning needs, facility oversite, and establish benchmark recycling standards that will set Michigan on the path to improved management of waste resources. The leading states in recycling recognize that both strong guiding policy and goals, along with stable funding, are the keys to success. It is our hope that the legislature acts on the policy recommendations yet this legislative session.
What can a Michigan citizen do to help with the recycling cause that he or she may not be already doing?
Recycling is a very personal act that is also very visible. Individuals can immediately see the difference they are making for the economy and the environment. When someone chooses to seek out a recycling bin, they are making a real difference. But it must be done correctly, or the entire system breaks down—as we are currently seeing with the China import restrictions. If there is one thing an individual can do, it is to actively research what can and cannot go in their recycling bin. Ask their hauler or community for answers—then tell their neighbors, their brother in-law, their mother—together we can all ensure recycling continues to be successful for years to come.