Tag: PFAS

Drinking Water Week 2024

We are so used to turning on the tap and receiving safe drinking water that we often forget how vulnerable that water can be to contamination.

During Drinking Water Week, recognized May 5-11 by the State of Michigan and nationally, filling knowledge gaps is a critical priority. Knowing the source of your drinking water is crucial, and so is knowing about threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to prevent its contamination. Michigan also proclaims Thursday, May 9, as Private Residential Well Awareness Day to bring attention to the 2.6 million Michiganders who depend on private wells for their drinking water.

Michiganders have reason to grasp the threat to our drinking water. The lead contamination crises in Flint and Benton Harbor provide sobering lessons about one threat to drinking water. The federal government has now committed $15 billion nationwide for the replacement of lead pipes through which drinking water flows.

Another threat to public drinking water is the family of chemicals known as PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals”, used in many consumer products. These compounds pose potentially major human health effects.

The good news is that both the State of Michigan and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have set health-based limits for some PFAS in public drinking water supplies.

The threat from other contaminants is greatest to those who rely on the more than 1.25 million private wells in Michigan, which go largely untested. Many people don’t realize that 45% of Michigan’s population gets drinking water from underground sources.

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

For Michigan residents who receive drinking water from public water supplies, safety and contamination are regulated. Federal and state Safe Drinking Water laws require regular testing and treatment of public water. Customers of public water supplies are entitled to receive annual consumer confidence reports that detail levels of key contaminants and any violations of drinking water standards.

In 2022, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), there were 1,012 violations of Safe Drinking Act requirements at 328 community supplies. Most of these violations related to treatment or reporting requirements, not violations of health-based drinking water standards.

Many Michiganders drink bottled water—some as a short-term replacement for contaminated public or private water supplies, but far more do so for the perceived convenience and hydration. Many bottled water customers, however, do not realize that much bottled water comes from public supplies—they are drinking bottled tap water from systems paid for by taxpayers and marked up for significant profit by the private sector. Aquafina and Dasani labels in Michigan are drawn from the public supply for Southeast Michigan. And most of the remainder of bottled water packaged in Michigan—such as BlueTriton’s (formerly Nestle’s)—comes from groundwater that is tributary to Michigan’s streams and lakes. In effect, it and consequent private profits come from sources that belong to the people of Michigan under the public trust doctrine.

We should not take our drinking water for granted. Becoming aware of sources and threats is vital to our individual, family, and public health. Learn more about FLOW’s efforts to protect groundwater here on our website.

FLOW Applauds EPA for First-Ever, National Enforceable Drinking Water Standards for PFAs

On April 10, the Biden-Harris Administration and EPA issued the first-ever nationally enforceable drinking water standards to protect communities from cancer-causing toxic PFAS pollutants, also known as “forever chemicals.” FLOW applauds this important federal coordinated action designed to tackle PFA contamination, prioritize public health, and advance environmental justice in communities nationwide.

Michigan has much at stake in protecting the public from PFAs compounds. These ubiquitous chemicals have been found in hundreds of locations around the state, including drinking water supplies. In 2019, Governor Gretchen Whitmer directed the state to promulgate strong protective standards for PFAs in drinking water, but they were challenged and have been held up in court by industries.

Ensuring everyone has access to clean, safe, affordable drinking water is a national priority. We commend EPA’s effort to establish new standards for PFAs in Drinking Water as a first step in protecting people from PFA contamination. This work is only the beginning as there are more than 10,000 compounds in this chemical class. Establishing federal standards is more important than ever before because even in leading states like Michigan with established PFAs drinking water standards, corporate interests have challenged and successfully delayed these important protections,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water (FLOW).

To ensure the successful implementation of this new drinking water rule, the Biden-Harris Administration announced unprecedented funding, with an additional $1 billion of available funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to support states and territories to test for PFAs in public water systems and private wells.

PFAS Chemicals in Tap Water More Widespread Than Thought

A new U.S. government study that finds toxic PFAS chemicals could be present in nearly 50% of the nation’s tap water “should sound alarm bells for people across the country,” says a Michigan citizen leader on PFAS policy.

Tony Spaniola, who co-founded and co-chairs the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network and serves on the Leadership Team of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition said “It is staggering that nearly half of all Americans have PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ in their tap water.” 

“But it’s even more staggering that the study only tested for 32 of the more than 12,000-plus PFAS chemicals that are used in commerce. If the study had tested for all of those chemicals, it’s reasonable to infer that many more Americans are likely to have PFAS in their tap water.”

The study, conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, tested for 32 individual PFAS compounds from 716 locations representing a range of low, medium and high human-impacted areas. Water from public water supplies and private wells was analyzed. The most frequently detected compounds in this study were PFBS, PFHxS and PFOA. The interim health advisories released by the U.S. EPA in 2022 for PFOS and PFOA were exceeded in every sample in which they were detected in the study. 

Michigan’s PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) coordinated monitoring of public water supplies between 2018 and 2020. Approximately 80 public water supplies tested returned results greater than 10 parts per trillion of total tested PFAS. But only three supplies were found to have PFOS plus PFOA over a federal health advisory.

MPART had also confirmed 257 PFAS sites (map), including landfill, airports, former manufacturing sites and others as of May 8, 2023. 

PFAS chemicals have been used in clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, and the insulation of electrical wire. Possible human health effects include increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and low birth weight in infants.

Spaniola pointed out that there still are no federal drinking water regulations for any PFAS chemicals. The EPA is presently proposing to regulate only six PFAS chemicals, while Michigan regulates only seven of them.

He added: “We all need to demand from our elected officials and regulators that the entire class of PFAS chemicals be regulated and banned from use in commerce, except only in relatively rare instances in which their use is absolutely essential.”

Abigail Hendershott, executive director of MPART, says the fact Michigan has been sampling public water supplies for several years will enable state officials to assess the implications of EPA’s proposed drinking water standards for PFAS.

The new federal study, which includes test results from private wells, underscores the importance of doing more water sampling of private water than has been done in Michigan, Hendershott says. The state has sampled about 6,000 private wells in the course of investigating specific sites, but there are more than 1 million private wells in Michigan.

“MPART will continue to look for ways to promote private drinking water sampling to protect public health,” she said.

Opinion // Keep Michigan water affordable and in public hands

By: Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
January 17, 2023 // Bridge Michigan

Michigan is a water wonderland — think Great Lakes, 36,000 miles of rivers and streams, groundwater that supplies 45 percent of our state with drinking water, and more than 6 million acres of wetlands.

But these waters face a daunting array of challenges, everything from microplastics to toxic “forever chemicals,” inadequate infrastructure funding to the stresses of climate change. The impact on residents includes soaring water bills, water shutoffs and widespread concern about lead and chemical contamination.

In 2023, Michigan needs an inspiring vision, championed from the highest places inside our government and out. In her State of the State message set for Jan. 25, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has a chance to show the way by articulating bold proposals for Michigan’s water. I urge herto declare 2023 the Year of Keeping Water Public and Protected for All in Michigan.

Secure Affordable Rates and Public Control

  • Water affordability and access: Water is essential to sanitation, health and life itself. No Michigander should be denied public water service because of inability to pay. Michigan should enact legislation to ban residential water shutoffs, fix the affordability crisis and address water injustices.
  • Public Water Legislation: The state should enact legislation imposing royalties on bottlers who commodify waters owned by the State of Michigan at practically no cost and reap extraordinary profit on the resale. The royalties should make up a clean water trust fund to serve Michigan residents and communities for dedicated public purposes, including ending water shutoffs and helping people whose wells are contaminated.
  • Keep municipal water utilities public: Michigan must draw a clear line against any plan to privatize public water services, which weakens local control and can ratchet up rates while maintenance lags.

Protect Drinking Water and Public Health

We have made considerable progress in dealing with the kind of pollution the 1972 Clean Water Act targeted, but new threats continually emerge for which our laws are ill-prepared. The governor should call for actions to address not only these threats but also the mistakes of the past:

  • Groundwater: These vital but largely invisible waters are contaminated in over 15,000 localities. Another $50 million a year should be dedicated to the cleanup of toxic sites and prevention of groundwater contamination.
  • Climate resilience and water infrastructure funding: Climate change is putting unprecedented stress on already-faltering water systems. Despite a one-time infusion of federal funds last year, our water infrastructure faces a multi-billion dollar investment gap. We need long-term funding sources, and new water projects must be designed for an era of intensifying storms.
  • A new approach to chemical contamination: We can no longer deal with chemicals like PFAS one-by-one and after they have done environmental harm. Instead, the precautionary principle should be the foundation of our chemical policy, requiring chemical manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of the chemicals before they can be authorized for commerce.

Our actions now will define and shape the future of the Great Lakes. This future demands a new relationship with water, and recognizes, in the words of Jacques Cousteau, that “the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”

Imagine a future where we place water at the center of all decision-making. And imagine the profoundly positive impacts that result in energy choices, food systems, the transportation and housing sectors, urban development, manufacturing and more.

Safeguarding our Great Lakes is a deeply shared value and, despite daily indications of bitter polarization in our politics, this important area of common ground bridges political divides. Prudently conceived and boldly implemented, keeping our water public and protected for all can help secure Michigan’s future.

What Do the Election Results Mean for the Great Lakes State?

While the word “water” was not on the November 8 statewide general election ballot in Michigan, it was present on the ballot in various local communities and in different, more subtle ways across the Great Lakes State.

In some of Michigan’s 276 cities and 1,240 townships, voters considered new regulations to safeguard water resources and taxes for sewer and drinking water system improvements. In northwest Michigan’s Leelanau Township, for instance, 60% of voters approved zoning amendments designed to protect water quality; and Leelanau County is poised by month’s end to implement a county-wide septic code ordinance after the county board’s bipartisan vote in August following years of rancorous debate and unsuccessful attempts at passage.

In Ann Arbor, a whopping 71% of voters favored a proposal to fund the City’s A2 Zero Action Plan, which aims for a transition to carbon neutrality by 2030 to curb climate change. The funds will come from an up to 1-mill ($1 for every $1,000 in taxable value) increase in city property taxes over the next 20 years, which will raise an estimated $6,800,000 in the first year levied. Authorized uses include year-round composting; expanded residential/multifamily recycling; community and rooftop solar programs; rental and low-income household energy programs; bicycle, pedestrian and transit infrastructure; neighborhood resource centers; electric vehicle infrastructure; and tree plantings.

In some of Michigan’s 276 cities and 1,240 townships, voters considered new regulations to safeguard water resources and taxes for sewer and drinking water system improvements.  A whopping 71% of Ann Arbor voters favored a proposal to fund the City’s A2 Zero Action Plan, which aims for a transition to carbon neutrality by 2030 to curb climate change.

At the county level, decisions made by voters on whom to elect as commissioners in each of Michigan’s 83 counties could affect whether these jurisdictions in the near term take on one of the problems most threatening the state’s waters, an estimated 130,000 failing septic systems. Michigan remains the only state without a statewide law to set minimum standards for inspecting, maintaining, and replacing broken septic systems to protect surface water and groundwater and safeguard public health, so regulation is limited for now to a patchwork of local ordinances.

Historic Shift in Michigan’s Government

For the first time since the 1980s, Democrats have won the governor’s office, with the re-election of Gretchen Whitmer, and majorities in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature, albeit by just two seats in each chamber, which Republicans had controlled during Whitmer’s first term. The historic shift, along with the re-election of Dana Nessel as attorney general, promises to have enormous influence on the quality of water and other natural resources of the state.

enbridges-line-5-under-the-straits-of-mackinac-4f9997139d321d60

A diver points to a segment of the dual Line 5 oil pipelines operating under in the Straits of Mackinac since 1953.

As an example, Whitmer and Nessel have been partnering on a legal strategy to shut down Line 5, Enbridge’s risky, antiquated twin petroleum pipelines operating in the Straits of Mackinac, while their Republican opponents had pointedly promised to drop the litigation if elected. And Gov. Whitmer will have the opportunity to speed up progress on her climate action plan, restore polluter-pay cleanup laws weakened under former Republican Gov. John Engler, and protect and restore the Great Lakes. Widespread PFAS contamination, E. coli pollution, and harmful algal blooms also remain key priorities.

In the 2023-2024 session of the legislature, lawmakers will likely decide whether to enact a statewide law to control failing septic systems and whether to spend a part of several billion dollars in federal aid to maximize Michigan’s historic investments in clean drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, and other water infrastructure projects – including aging dams on Michigan rivers.

FLOW: It’s Time to Seize the Opportunity to Protect Fresh Water for All

As the Great Lakes State, Michigan must lead on every imaginable freshwater policy to protect this fragile, water-rich ecosystem and to secure safe, affordable drinking water for all.

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood

“For the first time in almost 40 years, the Whitmer administration and the legislature have an opportunity to profoundly shape water policy in the Great Lake State,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood, reflecting on the recent election results. “A lasting watermark would include securing clean, safe, and affordable water for all and protecting groundwater for the health of our lakes and communities.”

“For the first time in almost 40 years, the Whitmer administration and the legislature have an opportunity to profoundly shape water policy in the Great Lake State,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood, reflecting on the recent election results. “A lasting watermark would include securing clean, safe, and affordable water for all and protecting groundwater for the health of our lakes and communities.

Public Water, Public Justice

Governor Whitmer should play a leading role to close the bottled-water loophole in the Great Lakes Compact that presently allows diversions of water in containers less than 5.7 gallons. To do so, Kirkwood called on the governor and legislature to adopt FLOW’s “Public Water, Public Justice” model legislation that would generally prevent diversions by requiring small container diversions to be aligned with Public Trust principles, licensed by the state, and subject to royalties that would generate state revenue for Michigan’s vast water infrastructure needs.

“Michigan must seize this window of opportunity to think about systemic changes needed and make the greatest gains we can to protect fresh water, the environment, Pure Michigan economy, and our way of life in the face of impacts from unrelenting climate change and a water-scarce world,” said Kirkwood. “Big, bold ideas for a vibrant future vision are necessary to generate public engagement and support. So if there ever was a moment, this would be it.”

“Michigan must seize this window of opportunity to think about systemic changes needed and make the greatest gains we can to protect fresh water, the environment, Pure Michigan economy, and our way of life in the face of impacts from unrelenting climate change and a water-scarce world,” said Kirkwood. “Big, bold ideas for a vibrant future vision are necessary to generate public engagement and support. So if there ever was a moment, this would be it.”

On the Federal Front

Finally, all 13 of Michigan’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were contested in the November 8 election, with all incumbents who ran winning re-election, and Republicans gaining a slim majority in the chamber. Democrats retained narrow control of the U.S. Senate, and all Midwest governors on the ballot were re-elected.

The U.S. House will consider legislation in 2023 to address PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals,” which have contaminated over 200 sites in Michigan, and renewal of federal funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Everywhere you look, water issues colored Michigan election choices and outcome. Now comes the real work that we all must do together: Hold our elected officials accountable to ensure the waters of the Great Lakes Basin are healthy, public, and protected for all.

EPA Move Has Big Implications for Michigan’s PFAS “Forever Chemical” Toxic Sites

The proposal last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to list two “forever chemicals” as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law could help spur cleanup actions in Michigan.

The two chemicals, known as PFOS and PFOA, were two of the most widely used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and were used in firefighting foams, nonstick kitchenware, and water repellent gear, among other things, before being phased out. The chemicals break down very slowly, if ever, in the environment, are found in the blood of nearly all Americans, and have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, and other human health impacts. Promisingly, scientists at Northwestern University recently discovered a new method for breaking down PFAS compounds that could prove to be a breakthrough for cleanups.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) so far has identified 228 PFAS contamination sites. In 2018, EGLE predicted more than 11,300 PFAS sites in Michigan might exist, but had not been investigated yet, including at fire stations, municipal airports, military sites, refineries and bulk petroleum stations, and wastewater treatment plants.

“If the proposed rule takes effect, the hazardous substance designation will create a mechanism for the EPA to hold polluters financially accountable, and it will also allow communities, local governments, and small businesses to sue polluters to recover costs,” said Anthony Spaniola, an activist fighting for cleanup of PFAS contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force base near Oscoda. 

“If the proposed rule takes effect, the hazardous substance designation will create a mechanism for the EPA to hold polluters financially accountable, and it will also allow communities, local governments, and small businesses to sue polluters to recover costs,” said Anthony Spaniola, an activist fighting for cleanup of PFAS contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force base near Oscoda. 

Spaniola added, “As the proposed rule makes its way through the process, EPA will also be accepting public comment regarding other members of the PFAS chemical class that should also be designated as hazardous substances. In the best of all worlds, this could open the door for regulation of PFAS chemicals as a class—which is what should be done.” 

Michael S. Regan,
EPA Administrator

“This is a significant political and policy statement from the Biden administration,” he said.

“Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these forever chemicals,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in announcing the proposed rule. EPA will both help protect communities from PFAS pollution and seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions.

“Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these forever chemicals,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in announcing the proposed rule. EPA will both help protect communities from PFAS pollution and seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions.

The proposed designation of PFOS and PFOA is not a done deal. Citizens will need to submit supportive comments during the official rulemaking process. EPA will be publishing the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register before a 60-day comment period begins.

From PBB to PFAS to Lead: Will Government Ever Learn?

When a coalition of citizen groups, including FLOW, last fall urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect the nearly 10,000 residents of Benton Harbor from lead in their drinking water, it was a reminder that government officials have failed to heed the lessons of a half-century of Michigan environmental health disasters.

Once again, Michigan’s state government had failed to act with urgency to protect the public from toxic contaminants.

Once again, Michigan’s state government had failed to act with urgency to protect the public from toxic contaminants.

This week, seeking to protect Benton Harbor residents from lead as well as hoping to head off further criticism, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services promised to continue providing bottled water to the community until all lead pipes are replaced.

Last fall’s petition, coordinated by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, called on the EPA to prevent continuing lead exposure to the drinking water utility customers in the city. The petition came only after officials in Michigan’s Departments of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and Health and Human Services moved sluggishly to address the problem of lead in Benton Harbor’s drinking water pipelines and tap water.

Coming just eight years after the infamous lead poisoning of the people of Flint, the Benton Harbor crisis once again demonstrated the inability or unwillingness of government agencies to mobilize quickly to protect public health—and their refusal, in some cases, to communicate openly with citizens about risk.

The road to Benton Harbor can be said to begin in St. Louis, Michigan, in the spring of 1973.

St. Louis, Michigan, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The road to Benton Harbor can be said to begin in St. Louis, Michigan, in the spring of 1973. The Michigan Chemical Company produced both a toxic flame retardant, PBB, sold under the trade name FireMaster, and a cattle feed supplement sold under the trade name NutriMaster. A shortage of preprinted paper bag containers led to bags of PBB accidentally being sent to Michigan Farm Bureau Services in place of NutriMaster. This accident was not recognized until the spring of 1974.

PBB had entered the food chain through milk and other dairy products, beef products, and contaminated swine, sheep, chickens, and eggs. As a result of this incident, more than 500 contaminated Michigan farms were quarantined, and approximately 30,000 cattle, 4,500 swine, 1,500 sheep, and 1.5 million chickens were destroyed, along with more than 800 tons of animal feed, 18,000 pounds of cheese, 2,500 pounds of butter, 5 million eggs, and 34,000 pounds of dried milk products.

Even worse, millions of Michigan citizens ingested PBB, with unknown health impacts. To the most affected farm families, however, health effects have been palpable.

To compound the disaster, state government health officials dismissed public concerns about the impact of PBB until their complacency was exposed by test results from contaminated farm animals. Even then, they expressed skepticism about human health impacts. The resulting loss of public confidence in the state’s response and in the administration of Governor William Milliken left scars for years.

Flint bottled water photo courtesy of White Pine Press, NMC’s student-run newspaper

The 2014 Flint disaster demonstrated historical amnesia.

The 2014 Flint disaster demonstrated historical amnesia. After a state-appointed emergency manager authorized a shift in the source of the city’s drinking water from the safe metropolitan Detroit supply to the Flint River, whose chemistry corroded the interior of water pipes and released lead, citizens complained about the look and taste of their drinking water. At first, state officials said the water was safe and mocked a lead study undertaken by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards. Ultimately, two state department heads lost their jobs as it became clear that the 99,000 residents of Flint had absorbed lead at levels of concern, and then-Governor Rick Snyder was forced to apologize for his administration’s inadequate response. Snyder still faces criminal charges related to the disaster.

The Snyder administration also blundered in dealing with a class of toxic compounds known as PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” because they do not readily break down in the environment.

The Snyder administration also blundered in dealing with a class of toxic compounds known as PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” because they do not readily break down in the environment. When scientist Robert Delaney of what was then the Department of Environmental Quality warned of widespread PFAS contamination in Michigan, his concerns were largely brushed aside. It turned out that the scientist was correct–PFAS have been identified at approximately 200 sites in Michigan and are suspected at hundreds more locations. Citizens have been exposed to chemicals shown to cause serious health effects in laboratory animals, and it will cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to clean up the PFAS messes.

To her credit, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s first executive directive after she took office in 2019 encouraged state employees to come forward to her office if they had reason to believe in a significant threat to the public health and welfare and were concerned the state was not acting swiftly enough. The Governor also promised transparency in addressing environmental health concerns.

It was surprising, then, that EGLE officials delayed for more than eight months telling residents of 18 homes in East Bay Township near Traverse City that the state was investigating the possible presence of PFAS in their private drinking water wells.

It was surprising, then, that EGLE officials delayed for more than eight months telling residents of 18 homes in East Bay Township near Traverse City that the state was investigating the possible presence of PFAS in their private drinking water wells. Saying they did not want to alarm citizens unnecessarily, they provoked outrage when the well testing showed PFAS. The homeowners were understandably angry. Some might have taken precautions to avoid even the chance of exposure to the pollutants. Eventually, their homes were connected to a safe municipal drinking water supply, but it is not known how long the residents were exposed.

That brings us back to Benton Harbor. Elevated lead levels were detected in city tap water for three years–at levels as much as 60 times higher than health standards–without effective state or local government action, until the coalition of community and environmental groups filed the September 2021 petition. This galvanized an emergency order from EPA and promises from Governor Whitmer to move expeditiously to replace the city’s lead drinking water pipes.

But as the Reverend Edward Pinkney, President of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council (BHCWC) wrote, This news has been tough to swallow especially after seeing the devastation of Flint, because we know that it’s the kids whose health will be hit hardest by this crisis. Too many parents of Benton Harbor are feeling overwhelmed thinking that they have failed their children through no fault of their own.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visits the first lead service line replacement construction site in Benton Harbor on Nov. 9, 2021.

Government exists to serve the people. In the face of a confirmed or suspected environmental health threat, the first response of officials ought to be concern and action, not denial and delay.

Government exists to serve the people. In the face of a confirmed or suspected environmental health threat, the first response of officials ought to be concern and action, not denial and delay. We can only hope that 50 years from now, a new generation of Michiganders does not have to learn the same hard lesson at a significant cost to human health.

Fighting Forever Chemicals: Michigan Governor, Feds Take Action

The logjam that has halted progress in dealing with PFAS, the toxic “forever chemicals” that plague communities across Michigan and the nation, is finally breaking up.

On October 27, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered state government to discontinue the purchase of many PFAS-containing products, as encouraged by FLOW last month. In a message to the Governor’s environmental advisor, FLOW and PFAS activist Tony Spaniola wrote, “The purchase and use of materials containing PFAS is an obstacle to reducing their presence in the environment and to reducing human health and environmental exposure. Because state government is a major purchaser of goods, this reality provides an opportunity for Governor Whitmer to show the way for other governments and the business sector to reduce PFAS in the supply chain.”

In signing her October 27 executive directive, the Governor, whose support was critical in enacting health-protective state drinking water standards for PFAS last year, said, “PFAS are dangerous, man-made chemicals that pose a threat to our health. While this is a good step, we still have so much more to do to address these forever chemicals. We need to lead with science and work together to keep families safe and ensure Michigan continues leading the nation when it comes to protecting people from toxic contaminants.”

Nine days earlier, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan announced a national PFAS strategy, the first proposed comprehensive federal effort to curtail PFAS threats to human health and the environment. While winning praise for many provisions, the strategy has been criticized for failing to address contamination from military facilities like the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda.

The action message was also the centerpiece of a webinar co-hosted on October 21 by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV) and FLOW. While MLCV introduced a toolkit for residents of communities affected by PFAS, U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell provided an update on her federal legislation, the  PFAS Action Act.

PFAS are a class of more than 4,700 different chemicals, poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS can take thousands of years to break down. PFAS are most dangerous when ingested by drinking or eating. PFAS have been linked to health effects such as impaired immune response, high cholesterol, and altered liver function. Other possible health effects include difficulty getting pregnant, kidney disease, heart disease, osteoarthritis, and some cancers.

The webinar was the second hosted by MLCV and FLOW in response to PFAS contamination confirmed in private drinking water wells in the Pine Grove neighborhood of East Bay Township near Traverse City in fall 2020. The contamination was found after state agencies decided to investigate groundwater near Cherry Capital Airport and a U.S. Coast Guard facility that used firefighting foams containing PFAS in training exercises for years. Residents of 18 homes in the Pine Grove neighborhood whose wells were contaminated with PFAS are now supplied with drinking water by Traverse City.

Controversy arose after it was learned that state officials waited eight months after commencing the investigation before notifying the affected residents. A citizens advisory group has now recommended that state officials should notify potentially affected residents as soon as the state commences a PFAS study.

FLOW provided updates on several issues related to the PFAS contamination in the Traverse City area:

  • The Traverse City drinking water treatment plant has reported that quarterly testing of East Bay, the source of the city’s drinking water, has not detected PFAS, but testing of treated drinking water has shown low levels of a PFAS compound, PFOA, though below the state health standard.
  • Cherry Capital Airport has submitted a grant application to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for $1.25 million to begin cleaning up the plume of contamination. 
  • The FAA has issued an alert informing airports that the use of non-PFAS firefighting foams will be allowed, but none meet the current specification requirements. The FAA expects that the U.S. Navy will be providing a specification for a PFAS-free firefighting material by January 31, 2023, and the FAA looks to adopt this specification.
  • Because the FAA agreed that PFAS firefighting foams do not need to be used in training exercises, Cherry Capital Airport’s use now should be zero unless there is an aircraft accident. 
  • The airport and Coast Guard are conducting further investigation of the PFAS-contaminated groundwater this fall, with results expected in early 2022, The study will include borings in the Pine Grove neighborhood.

Dingell’s PFAS Action Act, which passed the U.S. House 241-183 in July, would require EPA to take action to address two PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — through a number of regulatory provisions:

  • Designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund).
  • Designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
  • Requiring EPA to establish national drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS. 
  • Requiring EPA to place discharge limits on industrial releases of PFAS.
  • Providing $200 million annually for wastewater treatment.
  • Prohibiting unsafe incineration of PFAS waste.
  • Placing a moratorium on the introduction of new PFAS chemicals into commerce.
  • Requiring comprehensive PFAS health testing.
  • Creating a voluntary label for PFAS in cookware.

Dingell urged webinar participants to express support for the bill to Michigan’s U.S. Senators.

Leaders from communities impacted by PFAS recently announced the launch of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network (GLPAN), a coalition led by impacted community members to create a unified voice for action on PFAS contamination.

3M and PFAS: An Attack on Public Health and Michigan’s Drinking Water Rules

Photos of Clark’s Marsh by Anthony Spaniola

By Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

It’s not often that two high-ranking officials in Michigan’s state government lash out at a company in strong language. But that’s what happened May 7 when Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Liesl Clark, the director of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) slammed 3M.

The trigger for their statement was a lawsuit filed April 21 by 3M in the Michigan Court of Claims to block state drinking water rules adopted in August 2020. The standards, which protect public health by setting maximum allowable levels of seven toxic PFAS compounds in public drinking water supplies, were promised by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in her 2018 campaign. They are among the strongest standards in the nation for these “forever chemicals,” which remain in the environment indefinitely. 3M has manufactured PFAS chemicals since the 1950s.

PFAS are a group of chemicals used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. These coatings can be used in such products as clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, firefighting foam, and the insulation of electrical wire. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), PFAS have been linked to human health effects, including an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, decreased vaccine response in children, an increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and decreased birthweight. PFAS have been found in at least 166 locations in Michigan. The CDC conducted a study between 2000-2014 that found 98% of Americans have some amount of PFAS in their blood, according to the State of Michigan.

3M knows it is responsible to address contamination in Michigan and it has been unwilling to do so,” said Attorney General Nessel. “Now, it wants to change the rules so that it can continue to shirk its responsibility to Michigan residents and to the health of the water resources that define our state.”

Nessel added, “We will not tolerate these poisons in our environment and our drinking water, and we will not tolerate a corporation like 3M putting its dollars ahead of our health and our water.” 

3M’s lawsuit argues that the rules adopted by Michigan are scientifically flawed and were approved via a process that the company terms hasty and designed to suit the Governor’s timeline. But the Michigan PFAS rules went through a rigorous process, including the establishment of an expert science panel to review studies and recommend appropriate standards. The draft rules were then subject to a public comment process and public review by two state committees.

Michigan’s decision to set state PFAS drinking water standards was due in part to the failure of the Trump Administration to pursue national standards. On Trump’s last full day in office January 19, his EPA finally announced a plan to set standards for the two most well-studied PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, five months after Michigan’s PFAS rules took effect. Federal rule-making can take several years.

Last month, the state’s Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) announced that Michigan’s approximately 2,700 municipal and other large public drinking water supplies are meeting the state’s new PFAS standards.

Attorney General Nessel in January 2020 sued 3M and 16 other companies for damaging Michigan’s environment by deliberately concealing the dangers of PFAS and withholding scientific evidence, and “intentionally, knowingly and recklessly” putting at risk Michigan’s natural resources and public health. In August 2020, she sued 3M and other manufacturers of firefighting foam containing PFAS. The litigation is still pending.

In 2018, the state of Minnesota settled a lawsuit against 3M Company for $850 million. The state sued 3M in 2010, alleging that the company’s production of PFAS had damaged drinking water and natural resources in the Twin Cities metro area. About $720 million of the settlement is being invested in drinking water and natural resource projects in the Twin Cities east metropolitan region.

PFAS and the Public: State of Michigan Owes Affected Communities the Truth

A faucet outside the home of a Pine Grove resident forced to drink bottled water in the Fall of 2020 out of fear that their tap water may be contaminated with PFAS. Photo by Holly Wright.

In February 2020, a state team led by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) began an investigation into the possibility of PFAS contamination spreading in groundwater north of Cherry Capital Airport and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station to drinking water wells in the nearby Pine Grove neighborhood of East Bay Township, near Traverse City.

Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS have been associated with adverse health effects ranging from increased cholesterol levels to an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer. A PFAS compound has been used in firefighting foams used in training at airports.

But state officials did not tell residents of 18 potentially affected homes of the investigation until October 2020, when they confirmed PFAS in the water of the 18 homeowners’ wells. The homeowners were understandably angry that eight months passed after the investigation started before they were made aware of it. Some might have taken precautions to avoid even the chance of exposure to the pollutants.

In response to the homeowners’ concerns, officials from the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) said they had not wanted to alarm affected residents of the neighborhood, preferring to have data in hand before they advised them. At a recent public meeting of the Citizens Advisory Working Group (CAWG) to MPART, members of PFAS-contaminated communities across the state challenged that rationale.

The effect on Pine Grove residents has been profound. In October 2020, longtime residents Carol and Philip Popa told former FLOW intern Holly Wright—who also lives in the neighborhood—that they were “having a hard time” feeling comfortable brushing their teeth with tap water. “I could have cancer because of them,” Philip said. 

Tony Spaniola, a cottage owner near Oscoda, where the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base has contaminated groundwater and surface water with PFAS from firefighting foams, was particularly outraged. “In Oscoda, we live daily with the consequences of EGLE/DEQ’s tunnel-vision and minimizing statements and conduct,” Spaniola said. “For our sake, and for the sake of other communities around the state, EGLE should learn a lesson and not allow past mistakes to be repeated and amplified.”  

This lesson is one that has eluded state officials for almost 50 years. When PBB fire retardant was accidentally mixed with cattle feed and entered Michigan’s food chain in 1973, the Michigan Departments of Agriculture and Public Health initially played down the human health threat, angering farmers with dying livestock and fanning public fear of a cancer outbreak.

Similar chemical threats from the 1980s into the 2000s were also often brushed aside by state agencies. Then, in 2014 and 2015, when lead in the drinking water of Flint reached levels of concern, state officials minimized the threat and attempted to portray residents raising concerns about the lead as grossly exaggerating. In the end, the officials were proven wrong—but approximately 99,000 residents of Flint were exposed to lead and long-term effects are likely for some.

Hoping to make sure this didn’t happen again, on her second day in office, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed her first executive directive establishing the policy that, “Action to mitigate or prevent threats to public health, safety, and welfare always should take precedence over any ill-advised attempt to protect the reputation of a department or agency, manipulate public perception, avoid political backlash, or engage in defensiveness, self-justification, or insular conduct. 

The directive went on to say, “If state government has information about an imminent threat to public health, safety, or welfare, the People of the State of Michigan have a right to know. State government must be open, transparent, and accountable to Michigan residents, even when a department, agency, or state officer falls short of the duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public we serve.

MPART fell well short of the Governor’s standard when it failed to inform residents of the Pine Grove neighborhood, early and transparently, about the possibility of PFAS in their well water. Although MPART members are talking about a new “communications protocol” for similar situations in the future, this overcomplicates the problem. Affected members of the public have a right to know about potential chemical threats to their health as soon as state officials have reason to believe the threat may exist. It’s simple: assume the public can handle the truth—and tell the truth in a timely way.

The good news is that at little or no cost to themselves, homeowners are being connected to the Traverse City municipal drinking water supply, which is drawn from East Grand Traverse Bay. They will no longer be drinking and bathing in PFAS-contaminated water. Let’s hope no damage was done—beyond the damage to government credibility.