Michigan officials urge federal action on 'forever chemicals'
Kalamazoo — As knowledge of PFAS contamination's footprint in Michigan expands, officials voiced frustrations over the lack of federal guidance on risk levels and a shortage of efficient water and blood tests for the chemical.
More than a dozen local and state officials, advocacy groups and residents participated Friday in the round table discussion with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Kalamazoo.
The Department of Defense — whose military bases in Oscoda, Alpena and Grayling used PFAS-containing firefighting foam for years — was not present at the discussion.
Though many residents attended the round table, there was no way for them to address the round table. Instead, they were asked to fill out note cards that would later be submitted to the EPA.
Though PFAS issues cut across the country, with each community experiencing unique challenges, Michigan has been a leader in addressing the class of chemicals, said Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.
"Michigan has taken one of the most aggressive approaches in terms of really trying to understand this issue,” Grevatt said.
The state began testing community water sources for PFAS in May and has struggled for years to address longstanding contamination at military bases as the science surrounding PFAS developed at the state and federal level.
PFAS compounds have been used in manufacturing to make carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, packaging for food and other products resistant to water, grease or stains. The Defense Department also used firefighting foam containing two PFAS compounds, PFOS and sometimes PFOA.
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.
Michigan has identified 35 contamination sites across the state whose PFAS levels rose above state standards for health. The sites include 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.
On Thursday and Friday, EPA officials toured contamination sites that included Portage Lake and Ann Arbor’s Barton Dam on the Huron River. U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, Fred Upton and Tim Walberg, who invited the EPA to visit the state during a House hearing last month, attended the tours.
“All of the member of the Michigan delegation feel the same,” Dingell, the Dearborn Democrat, said in a Thursday press call Thursday. “EPA must set one national standard.”
The EPA hopes to have a national management plan in place by the end of the year, Grevatt said. But the timeline wasn’t urgent enough for state officials and residents, who stressed the importance of federal research, standards and guidance to make real progress in Michigan.
"Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic bullet to solve this,” Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether said. “They’re called forever chemicals for a reason. ... We need desperately for the EPA to help us with that research portion."
The Defense Department’s absence at the event hinted at infighting among state and federal officials. Carol Isaacs, director of the state’s PFAS Action Response Team, said she was disappointed the department didn’t attend and urged the agency for a faster response in Alpena, Grayling and Oscoda, where PFAS contamination was first confirmed at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in 2010.
“There has been discord with the DOD about honoring state standards,” Isaacs said.
Residents and advocacy groups participating in the round table urged the state to stop waiting on federal science or guidance and instead implement lower PFAS thresholds statewide. They asked the state to allow the public a place at the table and encouraged public engagement.
“The fact that there are data gaps should not be used as a crutch,” said A.J. Birkbeck, of the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Remediation.
Oscoda Township Supervisor Aaron Weed voiced a similar need for urgency, noting the problem in Oscoda appears to be worsening as PFAS-containing foam continues to grow in size on area waterways.
"It has become so significant this year that we end up with big piles of it now on the shoreline both on the inland lakes and along Lake Huron,” Weed said.
Parchment resident Tammy Cooper criticized lawmakers for passing legislation this year allowing corporations on to environmental rules and permit committees, only to show up later to hand out water at contaminated sites.
"I am not drinking the water,” Cooper said. “I’m still on bottled water because this has opened a whole world of information that I think residents should be educated on.”