2 Kalamazoo Co. communities shaken by contaminants in water

Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller speaks during a press conference about the high levels of Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS,  found in the drinking water of Parchment and Cooper Township at the Emergency Management Office inside the Kalamazoo County Sheriff Department in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Daniel Vasta /Kalamazoo Gazette via AP)

State officials are ramping up efforts to assist two Kalamazoo-area communities after residents were told not to drink the water because of  high levels of contaminants discovered in recent testing.

Legislative Democrats said the discovery shows the state dropped the ball in not warning residents of Parchment city and Cooper townships sooner. But Snyder administration officials said the testing for PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in small town water systems is unique and proactive.

A Thursday test showed a concentration of more than 1,500 parts per trillion of PFAS coming from Parchment's water supply, more than 20 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory of 70 parts per trillion, according to an operator on the Parchment water hotline.

A 2012 EPA rule requires testing for PFAS in communities with 10,000 or more people. Parchment has an estimated 1,844 people.  

Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley both visited the region Friday to talk with officials about the test results, which state officials called the first of their kind in the nation for detecting certain contaminants in water systems with under 10,000 users.

The chemicals have been detected in Michigan lakes and drinking water in West Michigan’s Belmont area and around military installations including Wurtsmith Air Force Base and Sawyer Air Force Base. They have been used in firefighting foams, food packaged in the materials, and in commercial household products or manufacturing facilities. 

Health researchers say long-term exposure to the chemicals in drinking water could harm human health, with links to issues such as thyroid, kidney, heart and reproductive problems.

The water remains safe for residents to bathe or wash laundry and dishes, but they should avoid drinking and cooking, said Jim Rutherford, who leads the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services Department. The ban will last until test results show PFAS levels are below the health advisory levels, he added.

The governor had ordered the state departments of Environmental Quality, Health and Human Services, and State Police as well as the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team to help the townships. The State Emergency Operations Center has also been activated. 

"Our first priority is the health of residents in the Parchment and Cooper Township area and to ensure they have access to safe drinking water, a plan for which is already executed by local agencies with state assistance," Snyder said in a statement. "Our next step is to work as a team to address the source of this contamination and restore the municipal water system."

The communities were among the areas statewide where the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had been sampling water for PFAS, Rutherford said.

"It's something that isn't in place anywhere," Calley told The Detroit News in a Friday interview.

The testing was ordered after "we looked at other issues that had arisen in other places in our state. ... That's how this was discovered," he said.

County officials vowed bottled water would remain available.

"There should be no concerns for people getting water," Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller said at a late Thursday press conference. "You will get water."

A hotline has been launched for those who need help getting water: (269) 567-7595 and (269) 567-2517.

Parchment has the option of linking up to Kalamazoo's water system, Calley said.

"That's an option on the table. I want to stress that we're still just less than 24 hours now into this and there are a lot of factors and considerations," he said. "Emptying out and flushing the water system is important and how to do that and to make sure that it's done properly."

But state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and state Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, called Friday on GOP legislative leaders to hold hearings investigating the "alarming PFAS levels in Parchmont and Cooper during a call with reporters Friday afternoon.

In the call with reporters, Ananich said the test results were more than 20 times the "permissible amount." He said it is "completely unacceptable" that officials allegedly have been hiding bad news from the public and added that this is "sickeningly familiar" to Flint.

"We know that PFAS are extremely toxic to people and they are known to cause major developmental issues and research shows they can even cause an increase in risk for life-threatening conditions," he said.

"But we also know that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality knew about PFAS epidemic in 2012 but department heads failed to make the information public. It's distressing and beyond infuriating because that report could have had an impact on millions of Michiganders. It was locked away six years ago."

In mid-July, MLive reported that DEQ Superfund specialist Robert Delaney warned departments leaders in a 2012 report about high PFAS levels in fish and said there was documented pollution in lakes, other waterways and wildlife that “indicate a significant exposure to Michigan citizens and ecosystems."

Delaney wrote in the report, which MLive obtained in an open records request, that many other PFAS sites were waiting to be found.

Brinks said "parents are" feeling ill" because their children have been drinking water filled with what scientist call "forever chemicals."

"And I know that sickening feeling because I'm in Kent County where well water has been contaminated with PFAS and where parents here have the exact same fears," she said. "We cannot accept that this is the new normal."

Legislative Republicans have weakened environmental oversight for contamination cleanup, Brinks said, "destroying what should be a system of checks and balances that are designed to protect the public."

But Calley said "we can't take out time to have political arguments with people. We're working on solutions."

Last week, U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, sent a letter to EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler urging the agency to strengthen drinking water safeguards for PFAS.

Kalamazoo County said bottled water is being distributed Friday to residents in Parchment and Cooper Township from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Parchment High School. Kalamazoo will connect the two communities to its water supply, the county health officer said.

“We fully recognize the seriousness of this situation, and we recognize people are going to have concerns,” Sheriff Fuller told reporters. "... Please know we are taking care of these situations."

Authorities are working to determine from where the chemicals originated, but “we do know the source ... is a contaminant,” Rutherford said. “We don’t know the significance or how far this is spread out.”


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