Michigan fights to contain emerging chemical contaminant

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

An emerging drinking-water contaminant that was once just a concern in Michigan communities near military bases is raising health and environmental concerns in other areas, including Metro Detroit.

A sign warns of the dangers of eating fish from the Huron River Wednesday at Central Park in Millford. The river joins 35 sites across the state cited for the presence of chemicals known as PFAS.

Residents in five counties, including Oakland, Livingston and Wayne, were warned two weeks ago  not to swallow foam on the Huron River due to the presence of certain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS. The warning expanded an earlier do-not-eat advisory for fish from the river. 

The Huron River joins 35 contamination sites across the state — a list that includes Lake St. Clair and the Clinton River in Macomb County, a small community water supply in Parchment, residential wells around a Rockford tannery in West Michigan, and marshes, rivers and lakes around military bases in Oscoda, Alpena and Grayling.

The state has responded aggressively to the man-made threat in recent months, and residents have noticed. But critics argue the response prior to 2016 was slowed by a lack of understanding of the chemicals’ widespread presence and dangerous health effects.

"I'll never drink city water again, any city water, any well water," said Cooper Township resident Steve VanDiver. "I've lost trust in the water system across the country.”

Michigan has identified more than 30 contamination sites that have tested positive for the potentially harmful class of fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS — long used in products such as Teflon, Scotchgard and firefighting foam.

Suspecting there could be more affected locations, the state this spring started testing more than 1,800 drinking water sources for 26 PFAS compounds  sampling that this summer identified heightened concentrations in the Parchment water system that VanDiver has sworn off. Similar state testing in drinking water systems in communities where the Huron River runs through has mostly discovered no PFAS levels or minute traces. 

"We’ve been doing a lot based on the knowledge that’s out there on this emerging class of contaminants,” said Scott Dean, a spokesman for Michigan's PFAS task force. "No state is doing more on so many levels than in Michigan.”

Steve VanDiver fears the implications of long-term use of the water prior to the discovery of the chemicals in his area of west Michigan.

Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists contend the state's standards for contamination are too lenient and that Michigan should tighten restrictions instead of waiting on a federal determination. 

State Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, introduced legislation last year to lower the health advisory level from 70 parts per trillion —advised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — to 5 parts per trillion. Her push was lauded by environmental groups but labeled impractical by some experts. 

“With the health of every Michigander at stake," Brinks said, "it is past time for the Legislature to take action."

PFAS compounds, which build up in the environment and the body, have been used in manufacturing to make carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, packaging for food and other products resistant to water, grease or stains.

Starting in the 1970s, the Department of Defense used firefighting foam containing two well-known PFAS compounds — PFOS and sometimes PFOA — for emergency response and training, which is why they have been found at so many military installations.

Health officials have said the continued exposure to certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water could harm human health. Studies link exposure to developmental effects on fetuses, cancer and effects on liver and immunity function, among other issues. 

Contaminants in Michigan

In one of the earliest cases identified in Michigan, the state Department of Environmental Quality in 2010 confirmed PFAS was released at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and issued do-not-eat fish advisories for the area in 2012.

As knowledge of PFAS grew, DEQ employee Robert Delaney penned a research paper detailing the state “contaminant- induced health crisis," noting that though perfluoroalkyl chemicals were found in the blood serum of "virtually every Michigan city." Wurtsmith was then the only identified point source in Michigan. 

"Their ubiquitous nature in the environment, in our homes, in our food, water, and human blood, along with their almost indestructible nature in the environment, make them a high priority in the research community and for governments around the world," Delaney wrote.

School buses are parked near the former paper mill in the west Michigan city of Parchment. Testing of its water supply in July found 1,587 parts per trillion of PFAS chemicals, far exceeding the 70 ppt health advisory threshold the state adopted this year.

Delaney, who is still with the department, wrote the paper as part of a brainstorming program, but delays in research and regulation made Delaney's conclusions untenable at that time, Dean said. 

The state continued surface water testing for PFAS through 2013 and 2014, Dean said, but awareness and action began to gain real momentum a few years later. 

In 2016, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told residents living downstream of the Wurtsmith base to avoid using well water for drinking or cooking. The next year, Camp Grayling and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center were identified as contamination sites.

A fly-fishing enthusiast, Arnie Leriche retired to Oscoda near the AuSable River just as the state was confirming PFAS contamination at Wurtsmith in 2010.

A former environmental engineer for the EPA who helped manage the agency's online contamination database, Leriche researched the area before buying a home in Oscoda and saw there were two contamination sites nearby. 

But Leriche said he trusted state and federal regulators had it under control and when, a few years later, he started to see new signs warning against eating local fish, he again trusted government oversight. 

By 2016, Leriche felt the state and U.S. Air Force were responding too slowly to the contamination. 

"I sort of had now the feeling that I put too much faith in my agency that I’d spent 38 years with and in the military," said Leriche, who testified before a U.S. Senate panel in late September about the need for a swifter federal response. 

Testing concerns

At a U.S. House hearing last month Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, raised similar concerns as she asked a Michigan official about the delay of over a year in testing a PFAS-contaminated fish from the Huron River watershed.

Dingell said the fish that prompted the do-not-eat advisory had been caught in May 2017, was then frozen and not tested until 16 months later.

“Why did that happen? Do you have the resources you need?” Dingell said.

Carol Isaacs, the director of Michigan’s PFAS Action Response Team, said she had called the lab director at the health department with the same question and learned they’d tested over 700 samples this year. She insisted they were moving “incredibly rapidly.”

“They have been given money from the Legislature to expand their ability to test and are searching diligently for staff to be able to handle more testing of water, fish, deer,” Isaacs said.  

At least two auto suppliers have contributed to contamination of the Huron River. High levels of chemical contaminants have been identified as coming from Adept Plastic Finishing in Wixom and Tribar Manufacturing in Wixom, according to city of Wixom water treatment plant and state testing.

Norton Creek in Oakland County had a reading of 5,500 parts per trillion of a form of PFAS in July 24 testing, more than 450 times of the amount allowed in surface water and a Michigan record. The chemicals were traced to Tribar, which makes chrome-plated car parts, and the company is obeying a city of Wixom order to install a pretreatment system to reduce the chemicals in their discharge, DEQ's Dean said.  

PFAS contaminants were found in August and November 2017 in samples from the Clinton River near Mount Clemens and Lake St. Clair north of Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township.

Two people walk in a neighborhood in Parchment. The city’s water system was among 1,841 the state is testing for PFAS compounds.

Testing showed maximum values of 610 ppt, but the chemicals were not detected in later samples taken farther south in the Detroit River and lower Lake St. Clair.

"The investigation continues," Dean said, "both at Selfridge, due to the use of firefighting foam, and along the Clinton River upstream of the base in Mount Clemens due to the presence of industrial stormwater runoff into the river."

In late 2017, Gov. Rick Snyder created the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team to address the emerging crisis. Extra funding was set aside to test water supplies, assess them for PFAS contamination and develop cleanup plans.

In early 2018, the state adopted the federal health advisory level of 70 ppt and sued Wolverine Worldwide in federal court, despite its cooperation on PFAS contamination, in a bid to set deadlines for the company to complete cleanups. 

Wolverine officials have said they have tested for PFAS in more than 1,200 homes, paid for all of the tests, supplied bottled water to residents awaiting test results and paid for more than 500 house filtration systems as well as 150 point-of-use filters.

Snyder also asked Attorney General Bill Schuette to investigate suing 3M, the manufacturer of Scotchgard and firefighting foams. No lawsuit has been filed as the Attorney General's Office works with the DEQ "on the next steps our departments will take," Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said.

Minneapolis-based 3M did not respond to a request for comment.

Drinking water testing

In May, the state’s PFAS response team launched what it called the “most comprehensive statewide study of PFAS in water supplies,” when it began testing 1,841 public water systems and schools operating their own well for the contaminants.

The roughly 11,300 sites where PFAS-containing products could have been used or disposed — such as fire stations, refineries, landfills and military bases — served as a road map for the state to develop a schedule for the $1.7 million survey. At the end of the testing, the state will have tested 75 percent of Michigan’s drinking water.

The testing netted a big offender in July, when the city of Parchment’s water supply tested at 1,587 parts per trillion of PFAS chemicals, far exceeding the 70 ppt threshold.

The communities were placed under a state of emergency, and officials warned residents not to drink the water or cook with it until residents were hooked up to the Kalamazoo water supply.

Steve VanDiver lives about a block over from his mother in Cooper Township, but both of their homes received water from the Parchment supply.

The state and city response was swift once the chemical was identified, VanDiver said, but the implications of long-term use of the water prior to the shutdown are worrisome.

Parchment residents were warned not to drink the water or cook with it until they were hooked up to Kalamazoo’s water supply.

His mother has lived in the same home since 1966. She switched from well water to city water years ago as area residents began to realize their wells may have fallen victim to decades of industrial waste in the area.

The realization that the city water also was contaminated intensified VanDiver's frustration and his worries about the health impact on his mother after a half-century of drinking the area water. He attended a town hall meeting after the contamination was announced. 

"I had a big old sign that said: How long have you been poisoning my family?" he said.

Testing elsewhere has included several years of sampling by the Great Lakes Water Authority, which began monitoring PFAS in 2009. The authority, which provides water for 3.9 million people in Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties, detected no PFAS chemicals in the 2017-18 round of drinking water system screenings.

Lawmakers push back

The state’s drinking water testing program may be missing a large chunk of potentially dangerous water supplies because of its reliance on the federal 70 ppt threshold, Democratic lawmakers argue.

In an early September press conference, Brinks criticized the Republican majority for not acting on legislation she introduced last year that would lower the PFAS public health advisory level from 70 ppt to 5 ppt. She has yet to get a hearing on the bill, though DEQ officials have said they are open to a lower threshold.

The new level should be based on sound science and preferably supported by federal officials, Dean said. He noted that 22 of 50 states have no PFAS standards at all, and only four have a threshold lower than Michigan’s.  

Nonetheless, the PFAS task force has asked its panel of science experts to examine the possibility of a lower threshold and asked the EPA to accelerate its research and rule-making.

The EPA has not issued legally enforceable standards for PFAS in drinking water, which Isaacs has said would be a helpful tool for "holding responsible parties responsible."

“They move at a slower pace than the state would like to see,” Dean said about federal regulators.

In the meantime, state and local authorities have continued testing and installed filtration devices at some sites. In September, the state said it plans to launch drones over Lake Margrethe in Grayling to identify springs carrying PFAS contamination from the nearby Camp Grayling into local waterways.  

At the federal level, a bipartisan contingent of Michigan U.S. representatives recently introduced a bill that would require federal agencies to develop a plan to address PFAS contamination in affected states.

EPA officials have agreed to participate this week in a round table discussion on the issue in Michigan. 

Even if the federal government lowered the PFAS health advisory level, it is doubtful the technology exists that could treat water for 5 ppt of PFAS, said Alan Robertson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.

“We’re dealing with parts per trillion,” Robertson said. “We’re using treatments designed for parts per billion and taking it down to parts per trillion.”

The cost of such technology would be heavy, Robertson said, likely making it too expensive for communities like Parchment.

After attending the state’s testimony during the congressional hearings on PFAS in early September, Roberston said he was impressed with Michigan’s multi-agency response.

“They’re cutting across the typical silos in government, that’s what immediately jumped out to me,” he said.


(517) 371-3661

Staff Writer Leonard N. Fleming contributed.


PFAS emerges in Michigan

2010: Department of Environmental Quality confirms PFAS releases occurred at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.

Aug. 2012: DEQ staffer Robert Delaney pens “Michigan’s Contaminant Induced Health Crisis: Addressing Michigan’s Future by Facing the Challenge of the evolving Nature of Environmental Contamination.”

2012: "Do not eat" fish advisories issued for Clark's Marsh and part of the AuSable River near Wurtsmith

Early 2016: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services tells residents downstream of Wurtsmith to avoid using water for drinking or cooking.

March 2017: Camp Grayling tests positive for PFAS at concentrations higher than federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

May 2017: Wolverine Worldwide detects PFAS in Kent County residential wells, continues water well sampling, bottled water provisions, cleanup efforts. 

July 2017: PFAS-contaminated foam found on shore of Lake Van Etten in Oscoda by high school STEM summer program; state issues a health advisory telling residents not to ingest foam

October 2017: Resident sends picture and video to DEQ of foam on Lake Margrethe, near Camp Grayling, foam samples tested between 2,341 parts per trillion to 24,810 ppt.

October 2017: Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center tests positive for contaminated groundwater, elevated levels of PFAS. 

Nov. 13, 2017: Gov. Rick Snyder creates Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART)

Dec. 13, 2017: Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, introduces legislation to lower PFAS health advisory level from 70 ppt to 5 ppt.

December 2017: Legislators approve $23 million to test, assess and develop cleanup plans for 28 PFAS contamination sites, less than Snyder's requested $38 million.

January 2018: State sets 70 parts per trillion as threshold for state remediation; state sues Wolverine Worldwide Inc. to force the company into providing relief for residents affected by contamination from leather tanning plant.

May 2018: State begins survey of 1,380 community water supplies and 461 schools wells. 

July 13, 2018: Snyder requests legal proceedings against 3M, the manufacturer of PFAS-containing Scotchgard and firefighting foams.

July 24, 2018: State confirms test results showing a record 5,500 parts per trillion of the chemicals in Norton Creek in Oakland County.

July 26, 2018: Test results showed municipal water system serving Parchment and Cooper Township had high PFAS levels. Two days later, state declares emergency for Kalamazoo County.

Aug. 2018: “Do not eat” advisory issued  and later extended for all fish caught in Huron River and surrounding waterways.

Sept. 17, 2018: Health officials issue advisory against swallowing foam from Huron River.