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Michigan officials urge federal action over PFAS pollution

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director C. Heidi Grether wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do additional research and rules on chemicals known as PFAS.

Washington — State environmental officials are urging the federal government to do more research and adjust regulations surrounding a potentially harmful category of chemicals that have contaminated water supplies near Michigan defense sites and chemical plants.

Their call follows a summit of state and industry officials hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington this week on polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances — also known as PFAS — long used in products such as fire-fighting foam and non-stick coatings for pans and other items.

It also comes after the Trump administration has delayed for months publication of a study about the health effects of PFASs from the Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — reportedly over concerns about it causing a "public relations nightmare."

“Today, we’re calling on EPA to move forward with additional research and rule-making on PFAS, so we have sound science and clear regulations from which to continue our mission of protecting people and the environment from this emerging contaminant,” said Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director C. Heidi Grether, who attended the summit.

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, Sawyer Air Force Base, the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Camp Grayling and the Escanaba Defense Fuel Supply Point.

Excavation work takes place in October 2017 to remove rusty barrels, leather hides and other old tannery debris from Wolverine World Wide from a site in Belmont, Michigan.

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.

“We urge EPA to lead on this issue at a federal level by working with the Department of Defense to accept responsibility for the clean-up of these contaminated bases in an expedited time frame,” said Carol Isaacs, director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.

Last week, POLITICO published government emails that showed White House, EPA and Pentagon officials working to delay publication of the Health and Human Services' assessment that PFAS can cause risks to human health at lower levels than the 70 parts per trillion that EPA previously deemed safe. 

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, wrote to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt last week urging him to release the study "immediately," stressing its importance to protecting public health.

Democratic Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters wrote to Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, making a similar plea.

Pruitt responded to Kildee on Monday, saying the EPA does not have the authority to release the study since it is being prepared by HHS. Pruitt said PFAS is a "priority" of his.

"As I said in front of a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee last week, we need more information, not less," Pruitt wrote. "And we need to take action to address PFAS."

Kildee wasn't satisfied with Pruitt's answers.

“Time and time again, Administrator Pruitt has claimed he is working to address harmful contaminants in drinking water like PFAS or lead, but his EPA continues to kick the can down the road on taking any real action to protect American families," Kildee said in a Tuesday statement.

"It’s long past time for the Trump administration to get serious about updating outdated drinking water and clean up standards to protect public health.”

Michigan in January adopted an action standard of 70 ppt standard for PFAS, saying it was necessary to hold companies liable for contamination.

The state has sued Wolverine World Wide Inc. in federal court to force it into providing long-term relief for residents and others whose wells were contaminated by the company's leather tanning plant.