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PFAS in Michigan: What is being done and what isn't

Filtered water is the only thing Parchment mom Tammy Cooper will give her pets or family.JPG

The state is facing contaminated water in several locations and some lawmakers are working on solutions to the emerging problem.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), were commonly found in manufacturing processes as well as certain firefighting foam, AFFF. Water contaminated with PFAS can be harmful to ingest depending on the concentration levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a lifetime health advisory for PFAS set at 70 parts per trillion for drinking water; the health advisory is not an enforceable drinking water standard however, meaning states are not legally obligated to enforce the standard.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines some health concerns PFAS exposure can have, but no long-term health study has been done to link exposure to negative health impacts. The man-made chemicals known as forever chemicals because the breakdown is extremely slow.

Areas of Concern

Oscoda

A report from the state Department of Environmental Quality published in 2011 outlined how early the toxic chemicals, PFAS, were known to be in Michigan. When the report was authored, PFAS were referred to as perfluroinated compounds, or PFCs.

“Today, the only known site of PFC contamination in Michigan is the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base (WAFB) in Oscoda, but it is expected that detectable concentrations of PFCs could be found virtually anywhere in the state,” the report stated.

Wurtsmith Air Force Base is in Oscoda, the small beach town on the shore of Lake Huron. Now decommissioned, the base is home to private businesses; during operations, AFFF firefighting foam was used on the base leading to contaminated areas.

The 2011 DEQ report was followed by another report on PFAS in 2012. DEQ employee Robert Delaney helped author both reports.

The 2012 report warned of the possibility that PFAS could be a widespread issue in Michigan with more locations of contamination plausible.

Community members in Oscoda were just learning about PFAS in 2015 and what could be done when resident Robert Tasior first heard about the issue.

“In the first town hall meeting, Mr. Delaney got up and told the community things he found,” Tasior said. “I personally didn’t have a clue [about] what they were talking about.”

The DEQ did not make Delaney available for interviews for this report to learn more about how the department responded to the information in both reports.

Tasior said the town began having meetings with industry specialists to learn more about what the chemicals were and what could be done to mitigate or stop future contamination.

The Air Force said it will work with the state to find solutions to the problem. It has installed some filtration systems on base property but the flow of toxic water has made its way into other areas off the base.

Foam started appearing in Van Etten Lake, an inland lake in Oscoda with water sources trickling into Lake Huron.

“It’s beautiful, but people are afraid to get in the water now,” Tasior said.

The foam has PFAS concentrations and can be seen collecting on the surface of the lake as well as the shores. Tasior said people do not eat the fist that come from Van Etten Lake out of fear.

Somewhat regular meetings have been held with community groups, DEQ and Air Force members, but Tasior said the meetings have not been very helpful.

“It was hard to get information,” he said.

The Air Force is required to follow federal standards for cleaning up chemicals. Currently, the group of PFAS are not regulated by the federal government. The Air Force completed a switch in firefighting foams that contain fewer PFAS levels in 2018 in an attempt to prevent future contamination.

Tasior said he wants Michigan to act quicker in setting guidelines for PFAS and the levels people can drink. Right now, the state follows the EPA’s 70 ppt recommendation.

"They're all mixed up on numbers and they like to do that but the fact of the matter is, it's our health,” Tasior explained.

He does not believe the current standard is strict enough and wants to see the 70 ppt regulation changed.

“No one is seriously looking at passing legislation that will lower that 70 parts per trillion to get the rest of the area cleaned up,” he said.

During the 2017-18 Legislative Session, then-Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, introduced legislation to set Michigan’s drinking water standard at 5 ppt. That number is in line with a health study out of Harvard that recommends the standard be set much lower than the EPA’s 70.

Brinks’ bill did not go anywhere and after getting elected to the state senate, she introduced the plan again.

"Cancer doesn't care whether you're a democrat or republican. When you got it, you got it,” Tasior said.

Parchment

In 2017, the state launched a first of its kind, widespread testing efforts. The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, or MPART, was launched by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. The group brought together leaders from DEQ, Department of Natural Resources, Department of health and Human Services as well as others.

MPART tested municipal drinking water supplies for elevated levels of PFAS. In July 2018, Parchment, Mich. was detected to have PFAS contamination.

Quickly, the small town outside Kalamazoo was hooked up to the City of Kalamazoo’s water system as an alternate source.

“I remember going around emptying sippy cups and pet’s water bowls,” explained Tammy Cooper, a mom and Parchment resident.

Cooper said bottled water was brought into the town for people to use until the alternate water source was established. Now, Cooper said she does not feel the state or government is doing enough to prevent more contamination issues.

“The state and the federal government are sort of forgetting about us already and I feel like they are not doing enough to make sure that they are cleaning up what’s already in the ground and to make sure that this does not happen again,” she said. “What else is in the water?”

Health impacts, while largely circumstantial now since a nationwide health study has not been done, raise more questions for Cooper, she said.

“I think that we are really just throwing caution to the wind and we are being a little bit haphazard with the public health right now,” she said.

Belmont and Rockford

Tucked in the northern portion of Kent County sits the home of Sandy Wynn-Stelt. Her and her husband bought the home in 1992.

“We loved it because it was surrounded by Christmas trees; across the street was a Christmas tree farm, they were everywhere,” she said.

She described her life as “normal” and said she did not know much about the land surrounding her property. Twenty years later, her life changed.

“In 2016, my husband was diagnosed with liver cancer and died like three weeks later,” Wynn-Stelt said. “It was a very, very quick and sudden event.”

A year later, she said the state called and wanted to test her drinking water, which came from a private well, not a municipal drinking water supply.

Different state agencies, including the DEQ, showed up to her home to test the water. A few days later, the results came in.

“I’ve worked in government long enough to know that when five cars are pulling in your driveway, it’s not to deliver good news,” Wynn-Stelt recalled. “I knew then it wasn’t good.”

Wynn-Stelt said she did not know anything about PFAS but she soon learned she had 24,000 parts per trillion of PFAS in her water.

The source of her contamination, she said, comes from across the street where the property is owned by Wolverine World Wide, an international shoe company that also owned a tannery in Rockford.

"None of us knew that there was a dump site across the street,” she said.

Now, signs are posted on the fence that warn of contamination. Wolverine told the DEQ retesting soil samples in the affected areas launched in February 2019.

Drinking water comes only from bottled sources, Wynn-Stelt said, and her home is hooked up to a whole home filtration system.

“I get it tested now once a week and it’s fluctuated from 20,000 parts per trillion to 78,000 parts per trillion,” she said. “It’s going to be that high forever.”

Now knowing her water is filled with toxic chemicals, she said she can’t help but think about her husband’s death from liver cancer. According to the CDC, the liver is an organ that could see possible negative health impacts resulting from PFAS exposure.

“Now I'm not a doctor, I don't know. I could not have been good for him, that I know,” she said. “It could not have been good for his liver.”

She now has an attorney working to determine what Wolverine knew about the PFAS and when and in the meantime, she said she can’t think about blame.

"That's what usually keeps me up at night. It's not the blame, it's the what ifs. What if we would have known. What if we wouldn't have bought this house. What if we would have bought somewhere else,” Wynn-Stelt said.

Michigan’s Response

Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer ran on a campaign of making clean water a priority for the state. Her administration has remained tight lipped about what that means and plans for future PFAS testing or mitigation.

At the end of 2018, MPART dissolved and the leader, Carol Issacs, retired from state government. Before dissolving, MPART released a final report detailing results of a scientific study.

Led by Brown University Epidemiology professor David Savitz, the 99-page independent report goes point-by-point over what Michigan has done since the discovery of PFAS in drinking water. Established by Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2017, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) worked with the six-member panel to oversee this study.

While the report outlined many of positive actions Michigan has taken responding to PFAS, like testing water supplies and providing filters for some with contaminated water; one blaring note in the report is raising more questions.

“[The study] led us to the assessment that 70 parts per trillion may not provide a sufficient margin of safety,” explained Savitz.

Sen. Brinks’ plan for an enforceable drinking water standard has been introduced in the legislature for another attempt.

A legislative solution could be the only option after the GOP-led legislature in 2018 passed a law that prohibits the state from implementing rules that are stricter than federal regulations. Meaning, unless the EPA issues a drinking water standard, state agencies cannot.

Tasior, Cooper and Wynn-Stelt all explained they feel their voices in politics matter now more than ever.

“Politics you used to be able to think, ‘ahh, I’ll vote in November and then I’m done and it doesn’t matter’,” Wynn-Stelt said. “I think we figured out, oh my god does it matter.”

"First - we have to try and get the politics out of our water contamination issues,” explained Tasior. “Our health should not have a political party.”

Federal Response

Senate and House subcommittee hearings were held in the fall of 2018 regarding what the federal government’s role in the PFAS situation. Michigan is not the only state dealing with the emerging contaminant. New Hampshire is another state working through how to handle the toxic chemicals.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., brought a subcommittee hearing to Grand Rapids to learn more about what the state knew about PFAS.

The first time publicly, Bob Delaney testified during the hearing and discussed details about his 2012 report.

“In 2010, I began to feel that I was at the edge of the abyss looking into hell with the weight of the world on my shoulders. My fear and anger turned to conviction and determination,” Delaney said.

Delaney delivered those findings to then-DEQ director Dan Wyant in 2012 and testified that he was, “just trying to get somebody to listen.”

“It was sort of ignored, I would have to say,” explained Delaney, referring to that report.

Not coming to light until 2017, Delaney said he asked himself, ‘Am I crazy?’ after his scientific research went unanswered for nearly six years. Now, the scientist testified that he’s not surprised nothing happened with his findings back in 2012.

Wyant resigned in 2016 amid the Flint Water Crisis; Delaney said Wyant “really didn’t understand environmental science or issues.”

Reflecting on the lapsed years, Delaney said it saddens him to think about all the sites that have since been discovered to PFAS problems.

“But on the other hand, it was a vindication that yeah, we need to do this, we need to spend this money,” added Delaney.

The EPA was expected to release a report by the end of 2018 on its findings after research into PFAS and potentially a drinking water standard.

To date, a report has yet to be released. Some reports surfaced and said the EPA will not be issuing drinking water standards for PFAS. In a statement, the EPA said the agency has not announced what will be included in the report yet but is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, announced in January the launch of a bipartisan PFAS Task Force in Congress. Kildee, a co-chair, said the task force will educate members of Congress on PFAS, draft legislation and explore funding avenues for cleanup efforts nationwide.

“We’ve been pushing the EPA for example, to address this issue. They keep kicking the can down the road. We think Congress needs to affirmatively act to require a national standard of drinking water, for safe ground water, for PFAS,” Kildee explained. “Right now, all we have is a health advisory and even that is out of sync with science. I think we are really in a position where congress has to take the lead.”

State and Federal Collaboration

In October 2018, the EPA visited Kalamazoo for a roundtable event. The visit was announced less than 72 hours in advance and select community interest groups were invited to attend. While the two hour roundtable was open to the public, no time was allotted for public comment.

Through a Freedom of Information Act Request, the DEQ handed over more than 200 pages of emails between the state agency and the EPA detailing the scheduling communication for the event.

Based on the emails, it’s clear DEQ staff tried to bring the EPA to Michigan several times before the October event. In addition, other locations for the EPA to visit, including Oscoda, were discussed.

"We are one small community so you can just write us off? No - it's not going to work that way," Tasior said.

It’s unclear, based on the emails, why several tentative dates were cancelled for visits by the federal agency. It is clear, however, the state and federal government collaborated on a response after news surfaced that the October meeting was not going to allow public comment time.

Community Expectations

The communities impacted by toxic tap water may never return to drinking the water. Moving forward, they said they want lawmakers to act for them. Bob Tasior said he will not stop fighting for results.

"If we have to make the necessary noise and go to Washington, D.C, we've already done that,” Tasior said. “And we will do it again, and again and again.”

"I would hope there would be more transparency. I would hope they would treat us less like we don't know what we are doing, more like informed citizens,” Wynn-Stelt echoed.

After losing her husband, Wynn-Stelt said her life now revolves around fighting for clean water and getting answers from the government about what’s being done to stop future contamination.

"I remember like five years ago saying to my husband, 'we are so boring! oh my god we are such middle class boring people.' I would give anything to be boring again, I really would,” she said.

Follow Political Reporter Mikenzie Frost on Twitter and Facebook. Send tips to mbfrost@sbgtv.com or (517) 897-4861

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