Michigan official calls for more federal support, research on PFAS chemicals

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The Michigan official charged with coordinating the state's PFAS response called Tuesday for more federal support and research to help enable better decision-making by states to protect groundwater and the food supply from the synthetic substances known as "forever chemicals."

The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) has identified 194 sites of contamination around the state in the last four years. More cost-effective cleanup methods are needed to remediate large quantities of groundwater and soil, MPART Director Abigail Hendershott said Tuesday. 

Testifying virtually before a joint subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology, Hendershott also said federally supported research is needed to understand potential health risks posed by PFAS in food and how PFAS enters and affects the food supply. 

Foam along the Huron River can be seen downstream from Barton Dam in Ann Arbor. The state has issued PFAS advisories for the Huron and four other waterways in Michigan.

Hendershott also cited the need to develop a "truly" fluorine-free firefighting foam, noting the state of Michigan has collected over 51,000 gallons of what's known as AFFF foam from fire departments to "proactively" keep the foam containing PFAS out of the environment. 

She noted the research on a fluorine-free foam is "still in the process" but said it's "not fair" to expose firefighters to the health risks of the foam without giving them an alternative.

"As long as the military, airport and civilian fire departments use PFAS-containing AFFF, these negative consequences will continue to impact the surrounding communities, particularly in areas where residents rely on groundwater as their source of drinking water," she said. 

PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals" for their persistence in the environment, have long been used to make furniture, paper packaging for food and cookware that is resistant to water, grease or stains. 

The chemicals are linked to health problems including certain cancers and damage to liver and immunity functions, developmental impacts on fetuses, as well as cognitive and behavioral effects in exposed children. 

Michigan already has some of the strictest rules in the nation limiting chemical contaminants in drinking water supplies, with rules that took effect last year governing the presence of seven per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals in drinking water.

The state also has standards for groundwater cleanup and is considering standards for soil cleanup, said Hendershott, who applauded the Environmental Protection Agency for working to develop a national primary drinking water standard to be implemented by 2023. 

"Having uniform (standards) across our country would certainly make a better, consistent message, make us all work towards a collaboration and really coalesce the science around a uniform angle of drinking water protection," she said. 

Abigail Hendershott, executive director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, testified before a joint subcommittee hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space & Technology on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, chairs one of the subcommittees that convened Tuesday's hearing and noted the National Science Foundation supports research to better understand PFAS, including the effects of PFAS contamination on communities.

"Given the widespread applications of PFAS, a whole-of-government approach is required to research and address these chemicals," she said. 

Several lawmakers were intrigued by a new technology described at the hearing that was developed by the nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute.

The so-called PFAS Annihilator "destroys" PFAS in contaminated water to non-detectable levels within seconds, leaving inert salts and PFAS-free water behind, according to Battele's Amy Dindal.

Dindal told the committee that the technology is powered by a process called supercritical water oxidation that's been used since the 1980s to address "difficult to treat" compounds.

Battelle, which is collaborating with EPA on the research, has been testing the technology in the lab for two years and plans a January field deployment of a mobile system capable of treating up to 500 gallons a day, Dindal said.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, who co-chairs the Congressional PFAS Task Force, asked Dindal about the cost of the technology. 

Dindal said Battelle will be looking at cost and scalability as part of its current demonstration projects with the Department of Defense based on implementing the technology in a "real-world scenario," noting the cost could vary from site to site, depending on conditions.

"We are certainly focused on bringing forward an economically viable solution because we know that if the technology is not affordable, it will not be adopted," she said. 

Hendershott said the PFAS Annihilator sounded like a "great first step" but that the state is looking at a combination of technologies to tackle cleanup at sprawling sites like airports, military sites, a large tannery or industrial plant. 

"How do we clean up the groundwater? How do we clean up those soils? How do we clean up surface water?" she said. "There's not one technology that can do all of the things that we deem necessary for cleanup."