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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.).
Governor Whitmer’s directive Tuesday to the Department of Environmental Quality to develop an enforceable state drinking water standard for toxic PFAS chemicals is a welcome step. It signals that her Administration believes the health of Michigan citizens and the environment is not something to be left to foot-dragging federal officials, and that she is actively engaged in combating this threat.
“All Michiganders deserve to know that we are prioritizing their health and are working every day to protect the water that is coming out of their taps,” Whitmer said.
“As a result, Michigan will begin the process to establish PFAS drinking water standards that protect public health and the environment. Michigan has long advocated that the federal government establish national standards to protect the nation’s water from PFAS contamination, but we can no longer wait for the Trump Administration to act.” She set a deadline of October 1, 2019 for the standards.
PFAS compounds are a group of emerging and potentially harmful contaminants used in thousands of applications globally including firefighting foam, food packaging, and many other consumer products. These compounds also are used by industries such as tanneries, metal platers, and clothing manufacturers.
The state oversaw the sampling of 1,114 public water systems, 461 schools that operate their own wells, and 17 tribal water systems. Levels of PFAS below 10 parts per trillion (ppt) were detected in 7 percent of systems tested. PFAS levels between 10 and 70 ppt were detected in 3 percent of systems tested.
“PFAS are extremely toxic ‘forever chemicals’ contaminating far too many Michiganders’ tap water. By pushing for strong standards, the Governor is taking an important step to protect public health — but residents, particularly children and pregnant women — are being hurt by this chemical today. Fast action is needed to protect the state from the mounting health crisis caused by widespread drinking water contamination,” said Cyndi Roper, Michigan Senior Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The announcement was also important because once the federal government finally acts, a bad law passed by the Michigan Legislature in last year’s lame duck session could complicate the state’s efforts to set a protective standard. That bad law prevents Michigan from adopting standards more protective than federal limits unless the state can show “clear and convincing” evidence that it is needed, a high legal bar. By acting before a federal limit is in place, the state can use the best science to set a protective standard.
This is the second installment in a series of essays by FLOW board member Rick Kane on the vital issues of risk management and the responsibilities of public officials under the public trust doctrine. Rick is the former Director of Security, Environment, Transportation Safety and Emergency Services for Rhodia, North America. He is certified in environmental, hazardous materials, and security management, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan and University of Dallas.
PFAS – Public Trust and Risk Management
The discovery of groundwater, surface water, and drinking water contamination by fluorochemicals has triggered a global search for polluted areas, toxicology studies, contaminant sources, responsible party identification, and government actions to establish regulations. PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are the primary fluorochemicals of concern; however, they are only two members of a very large class known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under investigation. PFAS are used as raw materials and in final products such as firefighting foams, industrial cleaning and treating products, and fabric and paper with water or grease repellents, and also to fabricate membranes for medical and water treatment applications.
PFOA production started in 1947, and during the 1960s to 1990s, internal DuPont studies showed their presence in workers’ blood and drinking water, but DuPont did not disclose the findings of their studies to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2000, the company 3M, after negotiations with the EPA, announced a phaseout of PFOS. In 2005, the EPA designated PFOA as a “likely carcinogen,” and DuPont paid a settlement for withholding information. In 2012, an independent science panel reported linkages to health problems, followed in 2015 by hundreds of scientists signing an international “call to action.” Faced with an emerging PFAS contamination crisis of its groundwater, surface, and drinking water, Michigan in 2017 set a high priority to identify areas of contamination and supply safe drinking water and became one of the leaders in addressing the issue, with other states now starting programs. In Europe, through the European Union REACH program (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals), specific controls and implementation dates have been established for immediate action and deadlines set for 2020. C&EN Per-Fluorinated Chemicals Taint Drinking Water, PFAS Response – Taking Action Protecting Michigan,Understanding REACH, EU Restriction of PFOA, Related Substances
PFOS and PFOA, once widely used, are no longer manufactured in the United States. PFAS have an extremely low level of biodegradability, are environmentally persistent, and, as a result, are known as the “forever chemicals.” Scientists are still learning about the health effects, but current studies have shown that certain PFAS may:
Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant;
Increase the chance of high blood pressure in pregnant women;
Increase the chance of thyroid disease;
Increase cholesterol levels;
Change immune response; and
Increase the chance of cancer, especially kidney and testicular cancers.
States of emergency have been declared in several communities where high levels have been detected in drinking water. U.S. lawmakers are urging the EPA to regulate these chemicals as a class. Presently, there are more than 4,700 PFAS registered by the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society, and the health and environmental impacts are known for only a very few. C&EN U.S. Senators Seek Regulation PFASs
Michigan adopted 70 parts per trillion (ppt) as a legally enforceable cleanup level for PFOS or PFOA. However, a federal report, once suppressed by the U.S. military and EPA, proposes a safe daily level of consumption for the two PFAS at one-tenth the current EPA level. The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) translated these dose levels to drinking water maximums of 11 ppt for PFOA and 7 ppt for PFOS.C&EN Michigan Declares State of EmergencyC&EN U.S. Report Proposes Lower Safe Limit
The PFAS crisis is an ongoing example of a failure to apply comprehensive risk assessment and management practices and to uphold the Public Trust Doctrine as outlined in the first installment of this risk management series. A crisis developed because commercialization did not wait for the science; human health, drinking water supplies, and environmental protection were compromised. Industry continues to promote the use of the “best available science” in restricting and regulating PFAS. However, the knowledge base on alternatives, toxicology, environmental transport and fate, mitigation, and remediation continues to lag the commercial introduction and use of PFAS. There is a lack of precaution and use of public trust principles to protect public waters.
Risk was introduced in the previous installment as a function of probability and consequence. Probability can be further represented as a function of threat and vulnerability.
Risk = Probability x Consequence
Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence
Lack of Regulations – PFAS are not yet classified as hazardous materials under air, water, waste, or safe drinking water regulations. PFAS are present and causing problems in all of these media due to a lack of appropriate chemical management and regulatory controls.
Inadequate Toxicology and Ecosystem Threat Information – New PFAS are being identified in the environment and “allowable limits” are under study and debate. “Allowable” drinking water concentrations are extremely low, parts per trillion compared to other hazardous chemicals such as PCBs and chlorinated solvents in parts, which are measured in parts per million and billion; PFAS limits are orders of magnitude lower. This is a crisis requiring a priority and new approaches to mitigate water contaminants at extremely low concentrations that move easily through the environment.
Unidentified Contaminated Sites and Water Bodies – Hot zones are still being discovered. PFAS are found at military airbases, firefighting training facilities, and sites where the compounds were used to fight fires, were and are being manufactured and used to make products, and were disposed of or landfilled.
Lack of Control over Existing Stocks, Inventories – There are unknown quantities of PFAS at fire departments, cleaning and treating businesses, waste disposal operations, and product manufacturers. How are the PFAS being stored, used, disposed of, and replaced? One drum released to surface or groundwater can contaminate an enormous volume of drinking water.
Continued Manufacture and Use – New PFAS materials are being manufactured and used with a lack of information on health and environmental impacts and regulations. There are thousands of PFAS compounds, derivatives, and degradation products with health and safety information known only for a few.
Use of “Best Available Science” for Regulation – New regulation is needed for industry when “best available” is inadequate and a lack of “precaution” has expanded the number of crisis sites and new chemicals introduced to the environment. For example, the commercialization of “GenX” fluoro-surfactant (hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid HFPO-DA parent acid) as a partial substitute for PFOS and PFOA was believed to be a safe alternative, but was later discovered also to be toxic. Discharges from the Chemours (formerly DuPont) GenX manufacturing plant near Fayetteville, North Carolina, have contaminated the Cape Fear River and groundwater in the region. Air emissions from the plant have even contaminated rainwater, which, in turn, contaminated groundwater that is not hydraulically connected to the river or groundwater near the plant! Chemours to Pay Fine GenX, EPA Releases Draft Safe Daily GenX Dose,The Fluoro Council
Vulnerability to PFAS
Children are the Most Vulnerable to the effects of PFAS – Exposure is not only from drinking water, but also from swimming in contaminated areas and eating contaminated food.
PFAS Move Easily in Surface and Groundwater – Water analysis takes time and must be done by certified laboratories using expensive equipment (EPA Method 537 Rev 1.1 – Solid Phase Extraction and Liquid Chromatography/Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS). This inhibits quick identification and delineation of hot zones. It is estimated that there are thousands of potentially contaminated sites in Michigan alone. Record Eagle PFAS Plume Confirmed Near School
Human Health Impacts Occur from Long-Term Exposure – Symptoms and warning signs are not immediately evident.
Effectiveness of In-Home Removal Systems – Certain in-home drinking water treatment systems can be used for PFAS, but they are not efficient compared to the removal of other contaminant chemicals. The operating life of activated granular charcoal filters, for example, is shorter because of the low concentration levels (parts per trillion) that must be achieved. In addition, effectiveness has only been tested for a limited number of PFAS. Proper disposal of used filters is an issue to prevent PFAS from reentering the environment.
PFASs are continuing to be introduced into the ecosystem – And PFAS move rapidly through surface and groundwater. Extremely low concentrations have toxic impacts. Millions of people are at risk and others remain in the dark as testing and delineation goes on.
Food Contamination and Consumption Restrictions – Restrictions, especially for eating fish, have been issued at some locations. Health impacts from consumption are speculated, but largely unknown. PFAS bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain.
Water Recreational Use Limitations – Recreational restrictions are being imposed in some areas to avoid direct contact with PFAS foams during swimming and general water recreational activities.
Recommendations – Close the Gaps and Take Stronger Action
Important and additional actions include, but are not limited to, the following:
Government officials must recommit to their primary duty to protect human health and safety, protect the environment, and meet their public trust duties. Accountability for the PFAS crisis is resulting in huge liabilities for both government and private sector entities. Government officials cannot allow continued risk and consequences to the public as the battle ramps up regarding who is responsible and who pays.
Reclassifying the compounds to a higher regulatory risk level will enable stronger action to be taken to protect drinking water, discharges to the environment, remediation activities, and control of manufacturing, use, and storage. Lawmakers have proposed legislation, but actions are slow and PFAS continue to be discharged and spread through the environment.
New regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and/or state authority should use a precautionary approachto PFAS manufacturing, use, new chemical approvals and disposal. Use of “best available science” and “predicting toxicity” is not adequately addressing all of the risk elements. Health and the environment continue to be put in jeopardy. The use of best available science only works when the body of knowledge is adequate to determine the full risk to human health and the ecosystem. The current state of knowledge is still far short in understanding risk.
Establish a lower drinking water Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFAS. A Center for Disease Control (CDC) draft study indicates 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA, compared to the federal limit of 70 ppt.
Ensure an adequate number of water testing laboratories are in place with appropriate sample turnaround times.
Rick Kane, FLOW Board Member
Proactively, identify all users and stocks of PFAS and issue interim guidelines on proper handling and disposal. Already, abandoned drums of PFAS have been found in remote locations. Past experience with other hazardous chemicals indicates that illegal disposal and further contamination will occur. Best practices and approved disposal operations must be initiated as soon as possible.
Standards and regulations must be set for PFAS users and disposal operations, possibly starting with “maximum achievable control technology,” until risks have been identified and quantified.
The State of Michigan needs to continue to improve on communications transparency with a timetable, milestones, best practices, and newly identified risks on a statewide mapping system.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are driving Michigan’s latest surface and groundwater crisis, infiltrating public waters with what the media and others describe as “emerging” contaminants. It turns out, however, that this class of persistent fluorinated chemicals, known as “forever” chemicals due to their extraordinarily strong bonds, is anything but emergent.
In fact, the responsible chemical manufacturers (DuPont, 3M, and six others), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) have known for decades about the toxicity of PFAS, adverse health effects on humans and the environment, and persistent nature of this family of 5,000+ chemicals. In 2017, the Pentagon identified 401 military sites with known or potential releases of these chemicals.
Complex litigation and class action lawsuits now decades old involving former DuPont employees, 3M, and other manufacturers established causation and linked adverse human impacts to known scientific toxicological effects. Just watch the film The Devil We Know for a gut-wrenching look at what happens to animals, humans, families, and communities poisoned by PFAS contamination when chemical manufacturers and regulatory agencies duplicitously cooperate, ignore science, and continue to produce these chemicals that are ubiquitously found in our food, bodies, drinking water, clothes, and other consumer products sold around the globe.
The most commonly known PFAS-containing household products include Scotchgard®, Teflon®, and Gore-Tex®. PFAS chemicals can be found just about everywhere on the planet, including in mammals in remote Arctic regions. How vast a problem is this? Vast and unprecedented. “An estimated five million to 10 million people in the United States may be drinking water laced with high levels of the chemicals,” according to the New York Times. And an alarming ninety-eight percent of Americans are estimated to have some level of these fluorinated chemicals in their blood.
In 2016, the EPA set a non-enforceable health advisory for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) levels in drinking water at a combined 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, however, have stated repeatedly that exposure to even lower concentrations may pose health risks. Despite all that we know, in 2019 Americans still have no federal drinking water standard and no federal cleanup standard to protect communities from harmful health effects from these forever chemicals.
At the State Level
Without federal leadership to set drinking water and cleanup standards, and Superfund polluter liability, the states have to fend for themselves to address a nationwide crisis affecting everything from food, drinking water, wastewater, public health, wildlife, commercial household products, and industry processes. States including Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas, Vermont, and Washington have or are in the process of developing policies to regulate drinking water and cleanup for this class of toxic chemicals. And another 11 states—Alabama, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—are considering following suit, according to Bloomberg Environment analysis (check out Safer States’ bill tracker to see what’s happening in your state).
In Michigan, DEQ scientist Robert Delaney warned the state about the PFAS health crisis as early as 2012 in a seminal report that was largely ignored. That same year, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a “Do Not Eat” fish advisory near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Given that these chemicals can bioaccumulate in aquatic ecosystems resulting in higher levels in fish tissue, Michigan issued a health advisory for surface waters at 11 to 12 ppt.
With the discovery of PFAS at Wurtsmith Air Force Base and post-Flint crisis, the State of Michigan launched the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) in 2017 to investigate the drinking water systems, wastewater treatment plants, schools, and landfills across the state. The more the State of Michigan looked, the more PFAS-contaminated sites have been found.
In January 2018, the DEQ issued an emergency clean-up standard at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in groundwater used for drinking water in Michigan. To date, the State of Michigan has tested 1,400 community water systems, and 90 percent of them have no detectable PFA levels. The 10 percent, however, are a significant concern. An executive order signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer strengthened MPART(the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team) so that it can efficiently inform the public about toxic contamination threats, locate additional PFAS contamination zones, and take action on behalf of Michigan residents, notably by protecting their drinking water supplies from the family of chemicals.
But more needs to be done. Now.
State attorneys general, for example, need to further collaborate and take leadership in building a nationwide coalition to initiate litigation and demand federal agency action for drinking water and cleanup standards. In 2018, Minnesota’s Attorney General won an $850 million settlement with 3M, a manufacturer of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
Where Things Stand
EPA’s recent release of a PFAS Action Plan is the latest example of government foot dragging in the extreme. The plan appears designed to slow the federal response and shift the burden to the states to set their own standards.
On March 1, Michigan’s U.S. Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, along with ten other Senators, introduced legislation to regulate PFAS as a “hazardous substance” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known also as CERCLA or Superfund. Under the bill, the EPA would have regulatory enforcement powers over PFAS and could require polluters to pay for PFAS groundwater contamination and clean up. U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell introduced identical legislation in the House (HB 545). On March 5, Governor Whitmer issued a supplemental budget request for $120 million in clean water funds, including $30 million for PFAS research and clean up.
Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
With a family of 5,000 chemicals infused in everything from clothes to household products to manufacturing, federal and state toxicologists and risk experts are working hard to understand and evaluate the science of exposure and health impacts, and to determine what standards define an acceptable risk. In Michigan, leading toxicologists include among others Dr. Rick Rediske, Carol Miller, Rita Loch-Caruso, Courtney Carignan, and Steve Safferman. Their findings are critical to informing and resolving current state and federal policy debates on safe drinking water and clean up levels.
This latest surface and groundwater crisis is a reminder of how interconnected we are, how vulnerable the water cycle is, and how national chemical policy reform is urgently needed to protect human health and the environment before chemicals are put into commerce and adversely contact with human and the natural environment.
As usual, our 15-year-old son Quincy had fishing on his mind.
It was the steamy Friday afternoon start of Labor Day weekend in Ann Arbor. We had just moved Quincy’s brother Alex into a University of Michigan dorm room, and taken my wife to Detroit Metropolitan Airport to visit her parents in Florida. Now it was time for our own adventure.
We drove to Gallup Park, an east-side city oasis stretching along the Huron River that hosts a popular canoe livery and attracts locals as well as international students and families who often picnic and play there. Pulling our fishing gear from the Subaru, we stepped toward the wide tan waters of the slow-moving stretch of river.
My family & friends relaxing on the Huron River near the Argo Canoe Livery in Ann Arbor before heading downstream through the Cascades, U of M Nichols Arboretum, ending up at Gallup Park.
Quincy and I smiled as we joined the bicyclists, joggers, and other park-goers, and laughed at the chances of catching any fish in the full sun of late afternoon. We cast our lines and twitched our rubber worms as we chatted with two members of a family from Jordan also hoping to hook into something.
Finding no bites, just weeds, we moved to another shore, and Quincy hatched a plan: “If I can get through this brush and step into the water, I could cast along the shore where there’s a little shade.” Boom! The plan worked, and I heard thrashing in the water as Quincy hauling in a hefty, 17-inch largemouth bass. Quincy landed another nice bass before we left, and we returned the next morning to kayak the Huron with my sister who lives in Ann Arbor and my U of M college buddy and his son.
Water Everywhere and Not a Fish to Eat
Quincy Thayer with his catch-and-release largemouth bass at Gallup Park in Ann Arbor.
I had seen a prior state warning not to eat any Huron River fish in parts of three counties because of chemical pollution, specifically by PFOS, which is a type of PFAS, a term that represents a group of water-repellent chemicals known as per- and poly-fluorinated compounds.
Now the toxic PFAS advisory had been extended to all 130 miles of the Huron River in southeast Michigan, which emerges from a swamp in northern Oakland County and flows into Lake Erie on the boundary between Wayne and Monroe counties. The river and its toxins wind through thirteen parks, game areas, and recreation areas, and the cities of Dexter, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Belleville, Flat Rock, and Rockwood. It is the only state-designated Country-Scenic Natural River in southeast Michigan, according to Wikipedia, which includes 27.5 miles of the mainstream, plus an additional 10.5 miles of three tributaries.
It’s deeply troubling because PFAS have links to cancer, liver damage, birth defects and autoimmune diseases. The state says that touching the fish or water, and swimming in these water bodies, is not considered a health concern as PFAS do not move easily through the skin.
PFAS have been used in cosmetics, products including Scotchgard and Teflon, fire-retardant sprays, and some food packaging such as pizza boxes and microwave-popcorn bags. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t biodegrade.
Finding One PFAS Source, With Thousands More to Go
Michiganders are drinking PFAS too. Veterans and their families and co-workers for years likely drank PFAS at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. The state of Michigan has found the chemical concoction in the drinking water of 1.5 million Michiganders so far, with statewide testing only about halfway complete in late August. The list of public water supply systems with known PFAS levels currently include major systems that draw water from the Great Lakes such as Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Wyoming, as well as groundwater systems such as Kalamazoo, and surface water systems as in Ann Arbor, which draws primarily from the Huron River.
The state of Michigan and the federal government both lack a legally enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS, with state decision-making based on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) that is not protective of public health, particularly for children and pregnant women, and is 70 times higher than the limit of 1 ppt recommended in a study by the Harvard School of Public Health.
Starting with the Truth
On a personal level, it makes me sick that every fish in this wide river winding through my childhood hometown of Ann Arbor is too toxic to consume. I also wonder how the fish themselves are faring, along with everything else in the river and all birds and other wildlife that also eat the fish. Are they getting any warnings?
How do I really explain the handing off of this legacy to Quincy? I decide to start with the truth and text Quincy the article that Bill shared with me. We talk about it and commiserate a little. We like to eat fish, but mostly don’t for health concerns related to mercury, PCBs, and dioxin, and now PFAS.
I think about all those local and international families who do eat the fish they catch at Gallup Park. I call the park and reach a staffer who assures me that the city has erected signs and posters warning people along the Huron River not to eat the fish. He said the city also sent out a text alert about the PFAS pollution too. I feel somewhat assured, but also know that plenty of people along the river’s 130-mile run might not hear or heed the health warnings.
Kelly Thayer, FLOW Contributor
I recall reports that state officials ignored and suppressed a major warning in 2012 about Michigan’s emerging PFAS crisis. I reflect on the recent reporting by FLOW’s executive director Liz Kirkwood that “every year, chemical manufacturers release some 10,000 untested chemicals into the environment in the United States.” And I remind myself that fighting for what’s right and for the future is always the right thing to do, especially when the fight grows larger and seems overwhelming.
The heat is rising on the Michigan legislature to enact an enforceable PFAS drinking water standard and conduct a full investigation into the state’s PFAS crisis, and how an MDEQ report exposing it six years ago was ignored. Michiganders deserve the truth, the protection of their health, and an outdoors and drinking water supply that are not toxic.
Additional sources of information on PFAS contamination in Michigan: