Bills would curb, document use of contaminated firefighting foam

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — State lawmakers are working to curb and document the use of contaminated firefighting foam with a trio of bills.

Fire chiefs who use firefighting foam that contained per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances would be required to report its usage within 48 hours, including details on the location, quantity used, nearby waterways and cleanup efforts.

The bill also would require the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to begin a voluntary collection program for the estimated 37,000 gallons of PFAS-containing foam sill present in fire departments throughout the state.

“While the federal government has begun the process of addressing use of this chemical, it could take up to three years,” said bill sponsor Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, who discussed it in a Tuesday committee hearing. “I think we could do better.”

The legislation would amend Michigan Occupational Safety & Health Administration policy as well as firefighting training rules to require training specific to the usage and storage of PFAS-containing foam, even if a department doesn’t use the substance.

The use of PFAS-containing foam, still common in fires involving combustible liquids, would be prohibited when it comes to training and equipment calibration under the proposed legislation, said Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond, a sponsor of the bills and longtime firefighter.

The legislation comes as state experts explore new enforceable drinking water standards for PFAS, a class of chemicals long used to create non-stick surfaces such as those found in Scotchgard, Teflon, food wrappers and firefighting foam. The chemicals have been associated with health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, and kidney and testicular cancers.

Testimony on the bills is expected to continue next week.

The reporting requirements in Allor's bill were largely supported, but some groups pushed back on Yaroch’s proposed increase in training requirements.

The additional training mandates could overburden departments that already are struggling to train and retain firefighters, especially at volunteer departments, said Dave Glotzbach, president of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs.

Rep. John Reilly, R-Oakland Township, expressed the same worries: “Looks like a lot of work on those firefighters,” he said.

Yaroch countered that the training is “minimal” and necessary even for those departments that don’t use the substance because of mutual aid agreements that could bring the substance from one jurisdiction to another.

“These are not burdensome,” Yaroch said. “And, even if they are, there are some things we just need to do because it protects our firefighters.”

Other worries centered around whether there is a safe, effective alternative to the firefighting foam currently used to extinguish hydrocarbon fires. Without such an alternative, the bills advancing collection of the remaining firefighting foam could be problematic, Glotzbach said.

“It’s like taking the water out of our fire trucks in certain instances and telling us to go put out a fire,” he said.

An expert testified that alternative fluorine-free foams are available and could make it possible for Michigan to issue a comprehensive ban on PFAS-containing firefighting foam in favor of those alternatives.

“There are alternatives out there,” said Rebecca Meuninck, deputy director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. "We have to have the will to use them.”

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