PFAS response agency continues without director or edict

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
At the intersection of Parchment's Travis and North 20th street, a hydrant flushes water from the system into a creekbed. The hydrant has been running since the PFAS crisis was announced Assorted views of Parchment, MI, named after the paper factories that it grew up around.  Now the paper factories are gone but they have left behind a legacy of pollution including the newest menace:  PFAS. Photo made on Sept 20, 2018 in Parchment, Michigan.

Lansing — A multi-agency state task force assembled to tackle a ubiquitous chemical contaminant across Michigan continues to operate under the Whitmer administration, but without a director or the executive directive that created it.

Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder’s edict that formed the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team expired on Dec. 31. The group’s director, Carol Isaacs, retired from the task force around the same time.

Despite that, MPART continues to sample, test and respond to sites with known or a potential contaminant, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Scott Dean said.

Likewise, the state Department of Health and Human Services is continuing to collect blood serum samples from residents in Kent County to study the link between drinking water with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, and the resulting increase in a person’s body.

“We continue to operate as before, but what the multi-agency team calls itself and how we’re organized will be something the new administration decides,” Dean said, noting that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has emphasized the importance of clean drinking water and PFAS response.

"The governor is closely reviewing this important matter to determine her approach moving forward," said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer.

Created at the tail end of 2017, MPART tested hundreds of community water supplies, school water supplies, day care centers and some private wells in 2018 for PFAS, a chemical long used in firefighting foam, tanneries, metal platers, Scotchgard and Teflon.

PFAS has some links to health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, and kidney and testicular cancers.

The group said the testing was some of the most extensive in the nation and led to the identification of sky-high PFAS levels in Parchment and a school in Grand Haven. MPART also surveyed more than 1,000 fire stations and airports for the PFAS-containing firefighting foam.

The state has issued do-not-eat fish advisories for several Michigan waterways because of PFAS contamination and warned people not to eat deer in the Clark’s Marsh area of Oscoda in October.

The state’s PFAS Science Advisory Committee in December issued a 90-page report after studying the issue for months. It noted that the levels of PFAS lower than 70 parts per trillion — the current state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level for drinking water — can hurt human health.

The report stopped short of recommending a new level, but promoted a new level based on a combination of both toxicological and epidemiological data. Former Director Isaacs at the time said a new standard could be developed in “a matter of weeks.”

The state has urged the EPA to provide guidance, or even a new federal standard, for safe PFAS levels in drinking water. But the guidelines are unlikely to arrive anytime soon because of the partial federal government shutdown.

The panel’s recommendation came more than a year after then-Democratic Rep. Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids had introduced a bill that would lower the drinking water health advisory level from 70 ppt to 5 ppt. The bill by Brinks, who is now a state senator, never gained a committee hearing.

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