Another Huge Drinking Water Fail Surfaces in Michigan

For years the state has ignored its foamy rivers and water supplies contaminated with chemicals called PFASs.

PFAS foam gathers along a beach on Van Etten Lake in June 2018 in Oscoda Township.

Jake May/

That MDEQ study, the one that included a detailed plan “to get as many people off impacted water as possible,” surfaced only this summer—six years later—following a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the news site

“Just knowing what I know now, that they already knew this was a problem for years . . . We probably would have purchased a home farther out of town away from the plume,” says Tim Chilcote, a writer who moved to the area for his wife’s job. “I’m not sure what the alternative would have been, but it certainly would have made us reconsider what we were doing.”

A Nationwide Problem

Delaney first detected PFAS levels higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently considers safe (70 parts per trillion) in the waters and fish around the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base, about 180 miles north of Detroit. Soon after, other PFAS-contaminated water supplies began to emerge across Michigan.

But the state didn’t snap into serious action until the 2017, after the discovery that shoemaker Wolverine World Wide had for decades been disposing of PFAS-laden tannery waste in a sludge dump near Grand Rapids. The PFAS came from the Scotchgard that the company used extensively to treat shoe leather. The factory was demolished in 2010, but tests of nearby foaming waterways came back showing high levels of the chemicals.

As of this summer, more than 30 sites in 15 Michigan communities have confirmed PFAS contamination in their soil, wildlife, and water, and the state is currently testing 1,380 public water systems and 460 schools that operate their own wells. So far, some level of PFAS contamination has been found in the water supplies of about 1.5 million Michiganders. But it’s not just Michigan’s problem; a study by Harvard researchers found that drinking water supplies in 33 states are contaminated with PFASs, and that the tap water of more than 6 million U.S. residents exceeds the EPA’s health advisories.

“Michigan is similar to most states in that they don’t have a drinking water standard for these chemicals and yet they have this stuff showing up in their water all over,” says Erik Olson, the senior director for Health & Food at NRDC. “It’s illustrative of a nationwide problem.”

Breaching the safety threshold for PFAS does not trigger any federal action because the EPA does not formally regulate these chemicals in drinking water—though the agency recently said it may initiate a process to do so. Olson says, however, that the EPA is currently receiving heavy input from the chemical industry, which is pushing for a weak standard. Indeed, Politico reports that the White House and the EPA pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for months not to release a study that suggests much lower safety levels, which could translate into drinking water health advisories of 11 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 7 ppt for PFOS. The CDC eventually published its report in June amid public and media backlash against the Trump administration.

Now What?

Michigan officials are currently wrangling with the Department of Defense over who should be responsible for compensating the sick and cleaning up the pollution around military installations. But after years of doing nearly nothing, Michigan is finally giving the matter the attention it deserved all along.

Governor Rick Snyder established the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team last autumn and allocated $23 million for further water testing and mitigation in PFAS-contaminated areas. Then, in January, the state sued Wolverine World Wide. The company, which has separately pledged $40 million toward cleanup and remediation, is also facing several lawsuits from residents and former employees who say PFAS exposure caused property damage and who will require years of continued medical surveillance.

In addition to MDEQ’s ambitious $1.7 million plan to test public drinking water systems and schools that have their own water supplies, Snyder has called on Attorney General Bill Schuette to sue 3M on grounds that it “was aware of the nature of its products and the threats they posed to public health.” 3M, which maintains that it acted responsibly in regard to PFAS, settled a similar lawsuit in February with the state of Minnesota, agreeing to pay $850 million.

While Michigan has taken some positive steps, Olson questions the sincerity of the current MDEQ director, Heidi Grether, with whom he appeared on a panel at an EPA summit focused on PFAS in the spring. During the discussion, a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection official asked Grether whether New Jersey should pursue a state drinking water standard or wait for the EPA to set a national one. Grether, who had been a lobbyist for BP during its Gulf oil disaster in 2010, replied that her industry experience led her to believe state-by-state rules on pollutants merely result in a “regulatory nightmare.” The response gave Olson the impression she wasn’t inclined to set a Michigan standard either.

“The chemical industry would like the EPA to come up with weak numbers and standards to tamp down state action,” Olson says. While states could legally pursue standards that are stronger than the EPA’s, he says a light federal handling of the pollutants might undercut efforts to do so.

In the meantime, the Chilcotes and people like them, who have already spent thousands of dollars on full-home water filters, will continue to anxiously monitor their children and themselves for possible health effects.

“Now that it might just come to light that the entire state is poisoned, it’s a misery-loves-company situation,” Chilcote says. At the very least, there is strength in numbers—and the problem has become far too big for Michigan and the EPA to ignore.

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