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Whitmer orders DEQ to develop PFAS drinking water standards

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Maya Murshak is one of the owners of Merit Labs in East Lansing, which does PFAS testing and is certified by multiple agencies.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has directed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to begin developing drinking water standards for per- and polyfluoralkyl substances instead of waiting on federal guidelines.

The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team will form a work group to review proposed and existing maximum contaminant levels throughout the country to develop an appropriate standard for Michigan by July 1. Under an accelerated schedule, stakeholders would be able to comment on the proposed standards by Oct. 1.

The "forever chemicals" known as PFAS are popularly used to create non-stick surfaces for products such as firefighting foam, Scotchgard, Teflon and food wrappers. They have been associated with health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels and kidney and testicular cancers.

Many have criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its current 70 parts per trillion health advisory level, alleging that the level is too permissive. A state science advisory panel at the end of 2018 said there is some proof that 70 ppt. may still be detrimental to human health. 

The EPA also has been slow to develop a new PFAS standard, indicating that it plans to set a mandatory new level for the "forever chemicals" by the end of the year.

The state “can no longer wait for the Trump administration to act” on the issue, Whitmer said.

“All Michiganders deserve to know that we are prioritizing their health and are working every day to protect the water that is coming out of their taps,” the governor said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a Tuesday statement that the Whitmer administration's proposed rules would be subject to normal legislative vetting and the rule-making process.

"Going forward, it is imperative that government rely on scientific research and facts to establish standards for drinking water," Shirkey said. "... The Senate has worked diligently to fund efforts to assess and mitigate the impact of PFAS, and my colleagues and I remain committed to pursuing science-based standards to protect the health and safety of our constituents.”

The decision was applauded by federal and state lawmakers who saw the panel as an expansion of the state's continued effort to identify and address PFAS contamination in Michigan.

Whitmer's leadership is needed given the EPA's delays, said Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who reiterated calls for the EPA to set a standard that would be applicable across the country. 

"Setting a maximum contaminant level in Michigan this year will make sure all residents know about contamination in a timely manner and we are able to take action to clean it up," Dingell said. 

The new standards should be ones that families can trust to be "sound, science-backed policies that hold up to rigorous scrutiny," said Rep. Sue Allor. The Wolverine Republican's district includes the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, considered to be one of the hardest hit areas in the state for PFAS contamination. 

Speaking with reporters shortly after the Tuesday announcement, Whitmer said she does not have a specific PFAS standard in mind but thought it was important to begin the rule-making process.

“I think we need to rely on experts and scientists to advise us,” the governor said, noting she also is asking the Michigan environmental and health departments for “unprecedented coordination” and analysis to guide a recommendation.

“This is a serious issue that is impacting more and more communities,” Whitmer said. “We’re finding out about it, and we’ve got more work to do. I think Michigan can be a leader in combating (PFAS contamination), but it’s going to be driven by science and facts.”

The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team in 2018 tested nearly 1,600 drinking water systems and schools for PFAS contamination. The state got a hit for PFAS on nearly 10 percent of those tested, but only two breached the federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion — the city of Parchment and an elementary school near Grand Haven.

The Republican-led Legislature last year spearheaded a new law designed to stop state agencies from adopting without explanation any rules stricter than federal versions.  Sponsoring Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, has said the law will not affect any push for a state PFAS rule because there is no existing federal standard. 

“I think that’s something we have to be mindful of and figure out how to navigate,” Whitmer said of the 2018 law.

The Michigan Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry in Michigan, said the announcement leaves unanswered questions, such as which PFAS compounds the standards would regulate and which risk assessment the standards would be based on.

"We believe the EPA and other federal agencies are ultimately best-positioned to develop such rules and have reinforced their commitment to do so," Council Executive Director John Dulmes said. "For that reason, we urge the Whitmer administration to ensure that science — not politics — is at the front and center of this proposed process.”

While still a representative, State Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, proposed a bill in December 2017 that would have lowered the state's standard to 5 ppt, but the legislation was never taken up in committee. Michigan officials instead have urged the EPA to develop new drinking water levels to protect human health and make enforcement of those thresholds possible.

The stricter standard of 5 ppt. would mean that more than 20 Michigan communities would have suspect water supplies. One part per trillion is the equivalent of one teardrop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Whitmer's decision is an important step in attaining a lower standard, Brinks said. 

"Enforceable standards based on the best science available put us on the right path — one that holds polluters accountable, deters further contamination and keeps the hard-working people of Michigan safe," she said.

The work of the task force will build on existing testing, which has equipped the state to respond quickly to new levels, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters said in a statement.

"This is not a partisan issue and we know legislative leaders are committed to standing together to address this threat to Michigan's way of life and our economy," the league's Deputy Director Bob Allison said.

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.


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