State moves ahead on standards for PFAS in drinking water

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

State environmental regulators on Friday announced they are moving ahead with proposed rules to limit certain forms of PFAS in drinking water for thousands of public water system operators in Michigan. 

The announcement comes following a review of the draft regulations by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The Democratic governor in March had directed the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy and state's PFAS Action Response Team to develop drinking water standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances rather than waiting for federal guidelines.

Foam along the Huron River can be seen downstream from the Barton Dam in the Barton Nature Area in Ann Arbor earlier this year. The state has previously issued substance advisories against touching foam due to PFAS exposure concerns.

The draft rules cover seven forms of PFAS and would apply to roughly 2,700 public water system operators around the state. State officials said the rules could be adopted by spring. 

"We can no longer wait for the federal government to act, which is why I directed EGLE to establish PFAS drinking water standards to protect Michiganders," Whitmer said in a statement. "Moving forward with the rulemaking process moves us one step closer toward building public confidence and achieving real solutions that ensure every Michigander can safely bathe their kids and give them a glass of water at the dinner table."

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 such health risks as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels and kidney and testicular cancers.

Some have criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its current 70 parts per trillion health advisory level, arguing that the level is too permissive. A state science advisory panel in 2018 said there is some proof that the federal advisory level might still be detrimental to human health. 

The EPA has been slow to develop a new PFAS standard, indicating that it plans to set a mandatory new level for PFAS by the end of the year. A spokesperson for the EPA wasn't immediately able to comment on Friday. 

Whitmer tasked the response team with forming a workgroup to review proposed and existing maximum contaminant levels throughout the country to craft a standard for Michigan.

Members of the PFAS response team voted last month in favor of EGLE proceeding with the establishment of Maximum Contaminant Levels for the seven types of PFAS based on the work group's recommendations.

EGLE Director Liesl Clark added Friday that the step is an "important milestone for the safety of Michigan's drinking water."

“These draft regulations represent the input from a diverse group of stakeholders who helped us shape regulations that are practical, science-driven and, most importantly, protective of public health," Clark said. "Here in Michigan, we remain committed to working together to root out PFAS contamination, protect at-risk populations and drive down exposure levels.”

The draft rule will follow the Administrative Rules Process handled by the Environmental Rules Review Committee, Michigan Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules, and Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

The rule also will be subject to a public comment period beginning later this year. A final rule could be adopted by April.