Tag: PFAS

State of the Great Lakes?

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

This month, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) issued the 2019 State of the Great Lakes Report.

While legitimately showcasing much good news about policies and programs benefiting the Lakes, the report joined the ranks of many that don’t say enough about the conditions of the Great Lakes themselves.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the Michigan Legislature and Governor in 1985 enacted a statutory requirement for an annual report on the state of the Great Lakes, they envisioned a science-based report card on the health of the waters and related resources of the Lakes themselves. Which pollutants are increasing and which are decreasing in Great Lakes waters? What are quantitative trends in beach closings and key populations of critical aquatic species? What  indicators of climate change are manifesting in the Great Lakes? 

But almost since the first day, and especially under former Gov. John Engler, Michigan’s Great Lakes report has amounted mostly to agency self-praise for a job well done.

Likewise, other Great Lakes institutions have had struggles coming up with objective indicators measuring the health of the Lakes, although they are now making some progress. Under the US-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 2012, the two nations are required to issue a State of the Great Lakes report every three years. Released in May, the most recent report finds:

“Overall, the Great Lakes are assessed as Fair and Unchanging. While progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes has occurred, including the reduction of toxic chemicals, the indicator assessments demonstrate that there are still significant challenges, including the impacts of nutrients and invasive species. The continued actions of many groups and individuals are contributing to the improvements in the Great Lakes.”

The assessment may be overly generous — but even if accurate, its “fair and unchanging” verdict translates at best to a C+. That is far from great effort on behalf of the Great Lakes. We can and must do better.

Back to the new Michigan report: It doesn’t attempt such a report card, but does deliver interesting news on drinking water rules for PFAS and other contaminants, high Great Lakes water levels, Asian carp and research on harmful algae blooms. As a “State of Great Lakes Programs” report, it offers some food for thought — but it doesn’t tell you scientifically where the health of the Lakes is headed.

One highlight of the EGLE report, however, is a discussion of the public trust doctrine, FLOW’s central organizing principle. The report observes:

“The basic premise behind much of the Great Lakes legal protection is the idea that surface water itself is not property of the state, but a public good. Over the years, a number of court cases have firmly established this legal principle, known as the ‘public trust doctrine.’ The public trust doctrine means protecting public water resources for the use and enjoyment of all. Under the public trust doctrine, the state acts as a trustee who is empowered to protect the water.”

We applaud EGLE’s recognition of its trustee role, and encourage Gov, Gretchen Whitmer and EGLE Director Liesl Clark to rely on the public trust doctrine to guide them as they consider their decisions on Line 5, Nestlé water withdrawals, and other weighty matters.

New Michigan Standards for Toxic PFAS in Drinking Water among Most Protective in the U.S.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

New, enforceable state drinking water standards to protect public health from seven toxic compounds will take effect early this month.

“Michigan is once again leading the way nationally in fighting PFAS contamination by setting our own science-based drinking water standard,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said.

Called for by Gov. Whitmer last year, the standards set maximum limits for the seven PFAS compounds. Known as “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly in the environment, PFAS have emerged as a national issue as more and more contamination sites are found. Two of the most serious hotspots in Michigan are sites associated with Wolverine Worldwide in Kent County and the former Wurthsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County.

“It is imperative for Michigan to promulgate the proposed rules as soon as practicable,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “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.”

The standards apply to approximately 2,700 public drinking water supplies across the state and will be enforced by the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). FLOW and other organizations have strongly supported the state standards in the absence of  binding, enforceable drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

PFAS have been used in thousands of applications globally, including firefighting foam, food packaging, non-stick coatings, stain and water repellents, and many other consumer products. PFAS compounds have been linked in scientific studies to:

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

“Governor Whitmer and EGLE deserve tremendous credit for taking this important first step in protecting Michigan residents from PFAS in their drinking water,” said Cyndi Roper, Michigan Senior Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Michigan is now regulating seven PFAS chemicals—which is more than any other state—and two of the standards are the nation’s most health protective. However, several of the new PFAS standards should have been more health protective based on the existing science.”

Roper added: “Further, even if we set standards for seven PFAS chemicals each year, it would take far too many generations to protect residents from the health impacts of these chemicals. Instead of playing regulatory whack-a-mole, Michigan should set a treatment technique that is most effective at cleaning up all known PFAS from drinking water.”

PFAS present a significant risk to human health. They break down slowly in the environment, can move quickly through the environment, and are associated with a wide array of harmful human health effects including cancer, immune system suppression, liver and kidney damage, and developmental and reproductive harm.

FLOW Calls for Strong, Protective Drinking Water Standards for “Forever Chemicals”

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.

Speak Up About PFAS, the “Forever Chemicals” in Michigan’s Drinking Water

Michigan residents have an opportunity until Friday, January 31, to speak up and defend our families and public drinking water from a group of chemicals known collectively as PFAS — also called “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment and are known to be in the water supply of at least 1.9 million Michiganders.

(To comment, email EGLE-PFAS-RuleMaking@Michigan.gov or mail your comment to: Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division / Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy / Attention: Suzann Ruch / PO Box 30817 / Lansing, Michigan 48909-8311)

What are the “Forever Chemicals”?

By Dave Long, Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC

PFOA and PFOS have been in the news lately, but what are they? PFOA and PFOS are fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. They have been used in the manufacturing of carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and for non-stick surfaces for cookware. These chemicals provide water repellency and resistance to grease and stains to fabric.  Consumers often know them as Scotchgard® and Teflon®. They are also used for firefighting at airports, chemical plants and for industrial fires.

These groups of man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been around since the 1940s, making our lives easier through non-stick surfaces, stain-resistant and water repellent products. Between 2000 and 2002, PFOS was voluntarily phased out of production in the U.S. by its primary manufacturers, 3M and DuPont. In 2006, eight major companies voluntarily agreed to phase out their global production of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals, although there are a limited number of current uses.

All that convenience comes at a price because PFOA does not break down and can accumulate over time in the environment and in your body. Recently PFOA and PFOS have been called the “Forever Chemicals.” Researchers have compelling evidence that exposure to some PFAS can cause adverse health effects.

In Michigan, PFAS chemicals have been found in many water supplies around Fort Grayling, in the city of Ann Arbor, and around several industrial sites. Currently the State of Michigan is working on setting a standard for drinking water to protect residents of the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued health advisory levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for two of these chemicals, PFOS and PFOA (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid, respectively).

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.

The good news is there are filters designed to remove PFAS chemicals from water, either tap water or from municipal water supplies. Specific ion exchange resins have been developed and tested. Highly selective ion exchange resins for PFAS chemicals remove PFOS or PFOA below the EPA Health Advisory (HA) levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

Don’t Forget the Department of Natural Resources

An angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo courtesy Michigan DNR

By Tom Baird

Many Michiganders overlook a state agency critical to the environment.

When we talk about water issues in Michigan, we usually think of environmental protection, especially related to pollution and public health. We tend to forget that environmentalism was born out of the conservation movement of the early 20th century. Water issues remain central to the mission of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to this day.

Water was an integral aspect of the early conservation efforts of Michigan, often related to fish and game issues, as well as agriculture. The Department of Conservation was created in 1921, and the DNR took its place in 1965. Michigan’s early environmental laws were assigned to the DNR, but under Governor John Engler the Department was split, with environmental functions going to the Department of Environmental Quality (now Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, EGLE), allegedly because the environmental staff at the DNR was too zealous in its enforcement of the law.

The DNR still has an active water program, covering areas of major concern. Under the new administration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, several of these areas have seen renewed focus. And the DNR has a Senior Water Policy Advisor, Dr. Tammy Newcomb, who oversees many of these efforts.

PFAS pollution is an area generally within the purview of EGLE and the Department of Health and Human Services. The DNR has an important role in assessing contamination of water bodies and the fish and game that use them. Recently “do not eat” advisories have been posted due to PFAS contamination on Clark’s Marsh and the Au Sable River near Oscoda and the Huron River, for example. The DNR is critical in determining how PFAS compounds work through an ecosystem, and its half-life in various species of fish. Michigan appears to be the only place in the world that has tested white-tailed deer for PFAS contamination, resulting in a “do not eat” advisory for venison near Oscoda. Much of this work has been controversial, especially in areas where hunting and fishing are integral to the local economy, but the DNR has pushed hard when public health was at risk.

Water withdrawals remain another controversial area of concern where the DNR is involved. Applicants for high-volume ground water withdrawal authorizations use the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) to determine whether a withdrawal will have an adverse environmental effect. This is based on a computer model that assesses the effect on nearby streams. Those streams are classified, in part, by their temperature, flow, and the type of fish living in them. Cold-water trout streams, for example, are highly valued, so a relatively small adverse effect (compared to a sluggish warm water stream) might trigger a denial. The DNR is responsible for characterizing each stream’s type, and identifying the fish that live in it. Recent water withdrawals by Nestlé for bottled water and by Encana for fracking in northern Lower Michigan, and for agricultural irrigation in the southwestern part of the state, have caused significant controversies and litigation. The WWAT is under continuing review.

The Water Use Advisory Council is back in operation. Its purposes include the study of groundwater use in Michigan, and review of the scientific basis and implementation of the WWAT. As noted above, the DNR has an integral role to play, and Dr. Newcomb is the DNR’s delegate to the Water Use Advisory Council. Important work on the WWAT will continue in 2020.

Invasive species are a never-ending challenge for the Great Lakes. A major focus is Asian carp. Intensive negotiations are continuing with Illinois and federal authorities to block their migration into Lake Michigan. The goal is to engineer and finance the “Brandon Road Locks Project.” Brandon Road is a system connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. It could allow carp to invade the Great Lakes. The project involves measures such as an engineered channel and acoustic fish deterrent, air bubbles, electric currents, improved locks with flushing systems, specialized boat ramps, and other measures. Negotiations with Illinois are ongoing, with the DNR keeping up the pressure.

Climate change is a major emerging threat to Michigan’s fish, wildlife, and state forests. Warming temperatures and severe weather events threaten rivers, lakes, and streams, and their fisheries. The DNR Fisheries Division has been studying the issue for several years now. At some point, difficult decisions will need to be made regarding management of these resources in the face of these climate effects. For example, some streams will warm to the point that they will not be viable habitats for trout, causing management objectives to change. This will be controversial due to its effect on anglers and local recreational economies, and the DNR will play a central role in deciding how to manage these resources in the face of these changes.

The Department of Natural Resources remains integral to the study and management of Michigan’s water issues.  Monitoring its work is critical to assure healthy and productive habitats and sustainable water uses.

Tom Baird, who serves on FLOW’s board of directors, is past president of the Anglers of the Au Sable and chair of the group’s legal and governmental relations committees. Reach him at tbairdo@aol.com.

Breaking the Cycle of Great Lakes Ruin and Recovery

Above photo: Jane Corwin, US Commissioner/Chair of the International Joint Commission, speaks at a public hearing in Traverse City on July 24, 2019. Photo by Rick Kane.

By Liz Kirkwood

Editor’s note: FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood was recently appointed to be a member of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

My colleague and mentor, Dave Dempsey, knows almost everything there is to know about the Great Lakes.  He’s encyclopedic, you could say. He’s authored over 10 books, including a classic one entitled Ruin and Recovery (University of Michigan Press, 2001).  

It’s the cycle we here in the Great Lakes are all too familiar with.  

The book tells a story of Michigan’s environmental ruin that began to worsen in the early 1900s, followed by the recovery that began in the 1970s as the public clamored for a clean environment.

It is amazing to imagine that over one hundred years ago, as lax water pollution standards led to the fouling of the Great Lakes, the US and Canadian governments had the vision and foresight to craft an international treaty to address boundary water management and disputes. Known as the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, this pact established the International Joint Commission (IJC) to serve as the advisor to both governments in preventing, arbitrating, and navigating water conflicts.  Of the nine major water basins shared by the US and Canada, the Great Lakes is the largest and has global significance because it contains 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water.    

In 1972, with increasing international water pollution, the US and Canada entered into the seminal Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA).  The Agreement called for binational action by the governments to reduce phosphorus pollution and meet water quality goals. It also set up the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) to assist the IJC in watchdogging Great Lakes cleanup.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the IJC was considered the moral authority on Great Lakes issues, candidly assessing progress and problems. Thanks in part to the Water Quality Board, the commission made a lasting contribution to Great Lakes cleanup by defining 43 “areas of concern” (AOCs)—bays, harbors, and rivers with severe legacy contamination—that needed sustained commitment to be cleaned up. Over 30 years later, work continues on the AOCs, along with congressional funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

The work of the Water Quality Board continues, too. The 28-member board provides advice to the IJC for the benefit of the 40 million people who rely on the lakes for drinking water, sustenance, and way of life.  The IJC recently appointed me to serve on the Board.

The Board represents the crossroads of the Great Lakes, bringing together diverse viewpoints from tribal leaders like Frank Ettawageshik and water affordability advocates like Monica Lewis-Patrick. It is a pleasure to serve with them and to problem solve how we can bring the Great Lakes community together to respond to old and new problems in the Basin. This work depends on developing key priorities and scientific goals to measure progress, coordinating strong and committed implementation among federal, state, and provincial environmental agencies, building stronger and new partnerships and alliances across these lakes, lifting up silenced voices to ensure water justice for all, and educating and empowering all peoples about the vital importance of protecting the health of our common waters.

It’s been almost 50 years since the two nations entered into the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and during this time, we have watched rust-belt contaminated urban cores rebound and polluted ecosystems revived. But we also have witnessed a rollback of major federal environmental regulations and laws, the Flint lead crisis, Detroit water shutoffs, lack of investment and crumbling regional water infrastructure, lack of safe, affordable drinking water, wetland destruction, water privatization, legacy and emerging pollutants like PFAS, and unprecedented climate change impacts.

Our challenge in this new century, then, is to break the constant cycle of ruin and recovery, and replace it with sustained protection and prosperity. This is critical in the context of the climate crisis where we are testing the capacity of our ecosystems to rebound. Instead, we must imagine the future we want, where natural and human ecosystems can thrive and prosper together.

To do this, we must challenge traditional assumptions and ways of thinking. We must draw not only on science but also on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a relational process for indigenous peoples that is built through experience and relationships that are difficult to incorporate into non-indigenous information systems and decision frameworks. We must design and enact bold policies that acknowledge the interconnectedness of human health, economic prosperity, and ecosystems.

With public trust doctrine protection, we can steward our waters as a shared public resource from one generation to the next and ensure multigenerational equity. Healthy economies and communities depend on healthy ecosystems. It’s as simple as that. The future of the Great Lakes depends on a vision and plan based on a water-economy that embraces a new water ethic at its center.

I am honored to serve on the Water Quality Board for the IJC and it is my great hope that we can work together to develop recommendations thattranslate into meaningful bi-national actions designed to protect the long-term health of the Great Lakes.

Gov. Whitmer, Michigan Legislature Agree on Funding for Clean Water

By Dave Dempsey

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:

  • $40 million for PFAS and emerging contaminants
  • $35 million for drinking water revolving loan fund community debt forgiveness
  • $30 million for lead and copper rule implementation
  • $7.5 million for water affordability planning
  • $7.5 million for private water well testing

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.

    Also included:
    • $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.

    Déjà Vu: PFAS are Latest in Long Line of Failed Chemical Policies

    Photo: Rebecca Meuninck, Deputy Director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center

    By Dave Dempsey

    The discovery of toxic per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in many Michigan locations, the fear and concern these chemicals have stirred, and the difficulty posed to government officials and the public on how to respond feel familiar to those residents 50 and over. As the baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

    PFAS are just the latest symbols of failed chemical policy in a chain reaching back to World War II. That policy has caused disease and death, ruined landscapes and waters, and cost taxpayers scores of billions of dollars. And still politicians haven’t learned.

    A Look Back

    A look back at Michigan’s history of dealing with chemical crises illustrates the point:

    • Mercury – When fish from the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River were found to have alarmingly high levels of toxic mercury in 1970, the state had to shut down the Lake St. Clair fishery until it completed an exhaustive effort to trace and control the sources. Although much reduced, mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources continue.
    • DDT – After the state banned most uses of toxic DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) in 1969 for its effect on fish, wildlife, and human health, it also had to ban several replacement chemicals in succeeding years.
    • PCBs – In 1971, investigators found surprisingly high levels of toxic PCBs in Michigan water bodies, including the Kalamazoo River. This led to a ban on the chemicals in the mid-1970s.
    • PBB & PBDEs– When toxic PBB, a flame retardant, was accidentally mixed with cattle feed in 1973, government responded slowly and the entire Michigan food chain was affected. Chemical companies replaced PBB with compounds like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which were subsequently found to be toxic to fish, wildlife and people and were banned or phased out.

      There are many more examples, the result of a policy that treats chemicals as though they have constitutional rights like people, “innocent until proven guilty.” It also treats them one at a time.

      Whack-a-mole

      “We’re playing chemical whack-a-mole,” says Rebecca Meuninck, Deputy Director of the Ecology Center, based in Ann Arbor. The Ecology Center has been working to develop chemical policy reform for years and has successfully championed initiatives such as Michigan state government’s Green Chemistry program. The program’s objective is to foster use and development of new chemicals and chemical products that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances while producing high quality products through safe and efficient manufacturing methods.

      The price of a piecemeal approach to chemical policy can be measured not just in damage to human health and the environment, but to taxpayer pocketbooks. Between the commencement of state-funded toxic cleanup program in the late 1970s and today — a 40-year period — Michigan citizens have shelled out more than $1.5 billion to handle cleanups of messes created by private parties. Created by everyone from small businesses to corporate giants, these toxic sites have become the public’s problem because many of the businesses involved have gone bankrupt or have chosen to contest their responsibility.

      Solutions?

      What can we do about this problem? We need a new national chemical policy that requires full testing and safety evaluation of chemicals before they are introduced to the market and to our air, water, and bodies. Although this is common sense, chemical manufacturers have successfully resisted these reforms through the political process.

      Meuninck says legislation passed and signed into law by former President Obama in 2016 has the potential to help.  Key provisions include:

      • A mandatory requirement for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate existing chemicals with clear and enforceable deadlines;
      • Risk-based chemical assessments;
      • Increased public transparency for chemical information; and
      • Consistent source of funding for the EPA to carry out the responsibilities under the new law.

      “These are important changes, but they’re only as good as the EPA that’s supposed to implement them,” Meuninck said.  “Otherwise, it could go horribly wrong.”

      REACH

      A potential model for a new U.S. policy is the European Commission’s 12-year-old REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation. REACH shifts the burden of identifying chemical hazards, means of mitigating hazards, and managing risk from government to business.

      Among other things, REACH:

      • Places responsibility on industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances.  Manufacturers and importers are required to gather information on the properties of their chemical substances, and to register the information in a central database.
      • Calls for the progressive substitution of the most dangerous chemicals (referred to as “substances of very high concern”) when suitable alternatives have been identified.

      “One of the main reasons for developing and adopting the REACH Regulation,” the Commission says, “was that a large number of substances have been manufactured and placed on the market in Europe for many years, sometimes in very high amounts, and yet there is insufficient information on the hazards that they pose to human health and the environment. There is a need to fill these information gaps to ensure that industry is able to assess hazards and risks of the substances, and to identify and implement the risk management measures to protect humans and the environment.”

      But the European approach is far from becoming U.S. policy, despite the best efforts of skilled, effective public interest groups like the Ecology Center. It is difficult to say what chemical crisis might prompt needed change here at home. That change is badly needed — without another crisis coming first.

      Dave Dempsey is the Senior Policy Advisor at FLOW

      Resetting Expectations: the Value of Natural Systems and Government’s Role in Protecting Water

      Report author Skip Pruss

      This is the second of four policy briefs by former FLOW board chair, and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, Skip Pruss that make the economic case for government’s role in protecting the environment. FLOW will unveil the last two briefs in the coming months.

      Click here to read the full 2nd report

      And in case you missed it, click here to read the full 1st report in the series and here to access its executive summary.


      The health and well-being of our state, our country, and our planet are dependent on maintaining the productive capacity of nature and the services it provides. Though not widely recognized or acknowledged, “natural capital” and the services provided by healthy ecosystems have always been the foundation upon which societies thrive and prosper.

      The relatively new science of ecological economics now provides the means of assessing and quantifying the value of natural capital and related ecological services. The science indicates that natural systems endow trillions of dollars of annual benefits that society overlooks and takes for granted, yet undergird all global economies. Determining the value of natural capital and the associated ecological services provides a means of measuring and understanding the economic value of the natural world. Accurate data and unbiased information about the value of nature and the services natural systems provide are essential to inform public policy and legislative action.

      Although there are many human impacts that impair and diminish natural systems, reducing the value and economic efficiency of natural systems, no greater threat exists than the warming of the planet caused by the continued emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels. Recent assessments indicate that greenhouse gas emissions will cause future damages of more than $50 trillion by 2050, and the economic burden will disproportionally fall on developing economies. Decarbonization of the global economy by transition to clean energy sources is imperative. The good news is that there is a clear consensus emerging that the energy transition is not only technically and economically feasible, but also that the global economic benefits from decarbonizing the global economy are substantial, including safeguarding the Great Lakes freshwater system from the worst effects of climate change. Government’s role in accelerating the energy transition is essential.

      Michigan’s water resources are a rich source of natural capital and provide significant ecological services that will become more valuable over time. Our abundant water resources will increasingly weigh to Michigan’s competitive advantage, but more likely than not, Michigan will face future challenges from states that will be stressed by inadequate water supplies and from water-dependent agricultural, commercial, and industrial interests. Our legal and moral authority to resist appropriation of our water wealth will be a function of how adept and effective we are as Great Lakes stewards in the conservation and protection of our water.

      In this, governance in Michigan is failing. The Flint water crisis is a stark lesson in the pitfalls of overriding and ignoring government standards intended to safeguard public health and safety. The PFAS crisis is attributable to the inadequacies of existing environmental laws, exacerbated by failed government leadership that ignored the findings and recommendations of the scientific professionals. Both the Flint crisis and PFAS concerns are incidents of a much larger systemic problem—groundwater contamination that is pervasive, yet is being ignored by policymakers and political leaders.

      The water-related exigencies Michigan is experiencing call for broader application of the Public Trust Doctrine to reestablish and reaffirm government’s responsibility to protect and safeguard water resources for the benefit of the public. Recognizing the interdependence of natural systems and the importance and value of the ecological services that water resources provide, the Public Trust Doctrine must be applied aggressively and proactively to address conditions that have the potential to harm or impair commonly held water resources.

      Report’s Key Facts

      • Science informs us that nature and natural systems endow trillions of dollars of annual benefits that society overlooks and takes for granted, yet undergird all global economies.
      • Though not widely recognized or acknowledged, “natural capital” and the services provided by healthy ecosystems have always been the foundation upon which societies thrive and prosper.
      • There is not only an absence of tension between environmental protection and economic performance, but in fact, the health of the environment and long-term economic growth and prosperity are mutually dependent and inextricably interconnected.
      • Although there are many human impacts that impair and diminish natural systems reducing the value and economic efficiency of natural systems, no greater threat exists than the warming of the planet caused by the continued emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels.
      • Recent assessments indicate that greenhouse gas emissions will cause future damages of more than $50 trillion by 2050 and the economic burden will disproportionally fall on developing economies.
      • Climate changes predicted for the Great Lakes Region include increased precipitation with a larger percentage of annual rainfall occurring in heavy precipitation events causing flooding, increasing soil erosion and nutrient loadings to tributary streams and rivers. More precipitation will also increase the frequency and amount of sewage overflows and further the propagation of algae, including cyanobacteria resulting in declining water quality and beach health. 
      • Warmer lake water temperatures will affect the distribution of fish by advantaging warm-water species over cold-water species, change aquatic plants and benthic communities, and accelerate eutrophication.
      • Decarbonization of the global economy by transition to clean energy sources including safeguarding the Great Lakes freshwater system from the worst effects of climate change is imperative. The good news is that there is a clear consensus emerging that the energy transition is not only technically and economically feasible, the economic benefit of the global energy transition would range from $65-160 trillion by 2050.
      • Safeguarding water resources and the ecological services they provide will become more challenging in a world where rising demand encounters growing water scarcity.
      • Escalating future demand and competition for water resources, intensified by a warming climate, will enhance the value of Great Lakes water, potentially increasing the chasm between the water rich and water poor.
      • Policymakers must come to recognize the importance of applying the Public Trust Doctrine to modern societal needs, the imperatives of evolving science, and to ensure water equity.
      • FLOW advocates for an expanded application of the Public Trust Doctrine to act as a shield for protecting water resources against activities that would reduce the quantity or quality of water or threaten to diminish or reduce the value of the ecological services the waters provide to the public.

      Government’s Role in Protecting Human Health and the Environment

      Since the 1970s, history has shown that government interventions requiring protection for human health and the environment through more stringent environmental laws have not only improved baseline conditions of our environment like air and water quality, but have also improved overall economic conditions. These studies, some of which were described in the first policy brief in this series, demonstrate the economic value of government-mandated protective standards by quantifying the benefits of protections aimed at improving public health and safeguarding the environment, as well as the high cost to the economy and public health of failing to protect the environment through adequate regulation.

      Our politics fail to take into account the overwhelming benefits accruing to the public by the protections and safeguards effectuated by environmental standards. Though the political narrative has recently evolved to the point where some political leaders publicly acknowledge that there is “no conflict between economic performance and environmental protection” recognizing that society can have both, the reality, clearly found in the relatively new field of environmental economics, is that economic prosperity, indeed the world’s economies, are ultimately dependent on protecting the planet and the valuable resources that well-balanced natural systems provide. In economic terms, there is not only an absence of tension between environmental protection and economic performance, but in fact, the health of the environment and long-term economic sustainability and prosperity are mutually dependent and inextricably interconnected.

      It is imperative that political leaders, policymakers, and citizens come to understand this critical association.

      Michigan Groundwater Expert Distills Lessons of a Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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