Michigan halfway through testing hundreds of water sites for PFAS contaminants

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
The Tannery Waste Landfill on House Street where workers from Youngs Environmental Cleanup work on October 19th, 2017.  House Street is one of many sites where toxic chemicals have been leaching into a private drinking water from the Wolverine World Wide company in Rockford, MI.  (Photo by Katy Batdorff /Special to the Detroit News)

Environmental officials are more than halfway through testing over 1,380 community water supplies for certain contaminants, resulting in one finding of high levels of contamination in a Kalamazoo County community, the state said Monday.

The water supply for the city of Parchment and neighboring Cooper Township was found Thursday to have 1,587 parts per trillion of PFAS, more than 20 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for perfluoroalkyl (PFAS) and polyfluoroalkyl contaminants (PFOS). Lt. Gov. Brian Calley on Sunday placed them under a state of emergency after officials warned residents not to drink the water or cook with it.

Parchment's water supply is the only of more than 650 public water supplies surveyed since May to have tested above federal health advisory levels.

The state started testing in west Michigan, and it isn't apparent whether its testing has reached Metro Detroit sites.

The Clinton River and Lake St Clair are on the state's list of confirmed PFAS sites in Macomb County. State sampling data show that Selfridge Air National Guard Base is a source of PFOS contamination flowing into those waterways, according to the Associated Press.

Three municipal drinking water intakes in Lake St. Clair had "detectable but very low levels of PFOS" that were far below the EPA's advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said in an April press release. The state also has an advisory warning residents not to eat any sunfish or bluegill caught in Lake St. Clair because of PFOS. 

But the Great Lakes Water Authority is already required by EPA rules to test for PFAS, for which long-term exposure can cause health problems, including issues in the thyroid, kidney, heart and reproductive system.

The regional authority did not detect the contaminant during testing in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018, spokeswoman Amanda Abukhader said Monday. The Great Lakes authority serves Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties as well as parts of St. Clair, Lapeer, Genesee and Washtenaw counties.

Michigan's PFAS Action Response Team has been testing community water supplies and 461 school wells based on a list of 11,300 sites in Michigan where national emerging contaminants collectively known as PFAS could be found in materials or waste, said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Scott Dean.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl are chemicals that have been used in firefighting foams, food packaged in the materials, and in commercial household products or manufacturing facilities.

Calley declared the state of emergency to ensure additional resources for the communities as they respond to the contaminant. Parchment area residents have been told not to drink the water, and bottled water supplies are being given out at the high school. 

The state is still investigating the cause of the PFAS contamination in Parchment, but the DEQ's Dean suspects the high levels may stem from industrial activity in the area, including past paper production activities.

“It’s no coincidence the town is named after historic paper-making activities in the area,” said Dean, a spokesman for the PFAS Action Response Team.

The public water supplies selected for testing and the timeline for that testing emerged from the DEQ’s list of 11,300 sites where PFAS materials may have been used or disposed of. Those sites included fire stations where a bucket of firefighting foam was used or landfills where Teflon pans and carpets with Scotchgard were dropped, Dean said.

In all, the 11,000-plus sites include more than 1,400 fire stations, 27 airports, 104 military bases, refineries, landfills, electroplating facilities, and waste water treatment plants.

Those locations gave the DEQ “a road map from which to design the schedule and location of our public water testing program that we started in May,” said Dean, spokesman for the state’s PFAS response team.

The team expects to complete testing by the end of the year, at which time the team will have tested water supplies for 75 percent of Michigan’s population.

The remaining 25 percent of residents on private well water are expected to be addressed through the DEQ’s roughly 35 active PFAS investigations in areas with known PFAS contamination such as Grayling, near the Grayling Army Airfield; Oscoda, near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base; and Rockford, near the Wolverine Worldwide tannery.

Attorney General Bill Schuette's office is reviewing a request from Gov. Rick Snyder to sue or prosecute 3M over its products such as Scotchgard that leached contaminants that have been identified in current or former military installations.

The Snyder administration wants "legal proceedings" started against the Minnesota group that also produce AFFF and AF-AFFF firefighting foam in addition to Scotchgard. 

"Michigan has made extensive progress in identifying sites that have been contaminated by PFAS, raising awareness of this national public health threat and working to eradicate the products that caused the contamination,” Snyder said in a mid-July statement.

Legislative Democrats said the discovery of tainted water shows the state was negligent in not warning residents of Parchment and Cooper Township sooner.

"Testing and distributing bottled water is necessary, but we need to do more to ensure that this never happens again — and that means immediately holding hearings and passing stronger laws to hold industries accountable,” said state Rep. Kevin Hertel of St. Clair Shores, Democratic vice chairman of the House Oversight Committee. 

But Dean said the state's $1.7 million survey of community water supplies is unique and ahead of other states' response to the emerging contaminant. The EPA requires cities of 10,000 or more to test their water supplies for PFAS, and Parchment was below the threshold.

"What we’re doing is showing results," Dean said. "There are now 3,000 people in the city of Parchment who are now protected from a contaminant that they didn’t know about until last week.”


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