Michigan sets limit for chemical contaminants in water

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Amid growing concern over chemical contaminants in the state’s drinking water, Gov. Rick Snyder’s office on Tuesday adopted a threshold for when regulators can act against polluters.

The new rule will require state remediation if residential or commercial drinking water is found to have per- and polyfluoroalkyl levels that meet or exceed 70 parts per trillion.

The substances, known collectively as PFAS, have been found in at least 14 communities across the state and have drawn extra scrutiny because of legacy pollution from a former chemical dumping site for footwear company Wolverine Worldwide north of Grand Rapids.

The new action level mirrors federal guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is the first time the state has had any such threshold for PFAS.

Because the EPA guideline is only a recommendation for unsafe exposure levels, it’s difficult for states to hold companies responsible for any PFAS pollution, said Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder.

“It’s harder to hold someone liable for something that there’s no action level for, it’s just an advisory,” Adler said. “We needed to set an action level. You have to have somewhere to start, so we’re gonna start with the 70 parts per trillion because that’s what the federal government” recommends.

Michigan’s new threshold comes after Snyder signed a supplemental spending bill in December allocating $23.2 million in state money toward cleaning up groundwater contamination from PFAS at 28 sites across the state.

At least 14 Michigan communities have sites known to have some level of PFAS in ground or drinking water supplies, according to the state. Problem areas include locations in Ann Arbor, the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and the former Wolverine Worldwide tannery and company dump sites in Rockford, Belmont and Plainfield Township.

While at least one state environmental official claims he sounded alarms about the potential threat five years ago, officials say they are still trying to understand the depth and breadth of PFAS contamination across Michigan.

PFAS were commonly used in a variety of industrial, food and textile industries over the past 50 years and have been used to make products such as firefighting foams, food packaging and cleaning products.

The EPA considers PFAS an “emerging contaminate” and says exposure to high levels has been shown to hurt humans and animals in lab tests, including producing low infant birth weights and affecting immune system issues. Animal testing data also suggests a link between PFAS and cancer, according to the federal agency.

One Plainfield Township home had a well that tested at 10,000 parts per trillion of perfluroalkyl substances – way over the federal guideline.

Snyder’s office also announced on Tuesday the creation of two new advisory committees meant to help with the new chemical contamination response effort.

Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive with the Department of Health and Human Services, will lead one such committee and Dr. David Savitz with Brown University’s School of Public Health will lead the second committee.

Together, the two committees will coordinate communication between local communities and state and federal response efforts, coordinate data, develop action plans and look into the science surrounding the issue.

The committees will also consider whether the new action level is sufficient in the future, according to Snyder spokesman Adler.