Rules panel advances stricter PFAS thresholds, public hearings

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A proposed tightening of restrictions on the presence of a widely used class of chemicals in drinking water will advance to a public hearing after the state’s Environmental Rules Review Committee voted unanimously Thursday to advance it.

Three public hearings on the proposed drinking standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are likely to take place in January. Input from those meetings will be relayed to the committee before its final March vote on the standards.

Foam along the Huron River can be seen downstream from the Barton Dam in the Barton Nature Area in Ann Arbor. The state has issued substance advisories against touching foam or eating fish on 18 waterways, due to PFAS exposure concerns.

“They laid out a timeline of what the timing targets are they're looking to hit,” committee Chairman Rob Nederhood said of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. “This committee doesn’t intend to be a delay in the process.”

EGLE said in a Thursday statement it was pleased the committee "finally allowed" the draft rules to advance "so Michiganders can provide input."

"EGLE, however, is disappointed that the committee's vote to review the draft rules after the public comment period will delay implementation," said department spokesman Scott Dean. 

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.

The state's proposed standards would set thresholds for seven kinds of PFAS chemicals and would apply to roughly 2,700 public water system operators around the state.

The proposed rules, which preempt federal considerations of similar rules, would set “maximum contaminant levels” for PFOA at 8 parts per trillion, PFOS at 16 ppt and Gen X at 370 ppt.

Some of the proposed levels are markedly stricter than the Environmental Protection Agency’s current health advisory level, which rests at 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS exposure through drinking water. The EPA has been slow to develop a new PFAS standard, indicating it plans to set a mandatory new level for PFAS by the end of the year.

The rules advanced by the committee Thursday include not only proposed thresholds, but also guidelines for water sampling, treatment and the release of public health advisories.

“The rules specify for each of the different PFAS compounds what type of public notice would have to go out if an exceedance happens,” Nederhood said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer earlier this year directed EGLE and the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team to develop drinking water standards for PFAS contaminants by April 2020.

The state released the new thresholds in late June, then developed a rule structure around them in time for an October meeting of the Environmental Rules Review Committee.

The Environmental Rules Review Committee was a controversial addition to the state's environmental rule-making process last year, when the Republican-led Legislature passed a law creating the panel made up of members of the public, environmental representatives and industry stakeholders.

Whitmer attempted to abolish the committee this year in an executive order that reorganized state environmental efforts and created the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

But the GOP-led Legislature rejected Whitmer’s initial order, prompting her to sign a second version that did not eliminate the panels. The governor requested a legal opinion from Attorney General Dana Nessel, but later backed off the request.

The committee’s consideration of the PFAS rules is one of the first steps in the review process. Should the group approve the rules and any necessary changes in March, the standards would advance to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

Three representatives from Michigan environmental groups urged the committee Thursday to avoid delays in approving the rules so a standard could be in place by April 1.

“These standards that are before you today are well grounded in current science,” said Sean McBrearty, of Clean Water Action. “We really encourage you to put these rules in place as soon as possible.”

Maya Murshak, CEO and technical director for Merit Laboratories in East Lansing, says the standard turnaround for PFAS testing is three weeks and the data analysis is lengthy: Six samples generate more than a thousand pages of data.

Committee members on Thursday considered discharging the rules from committee without any further input to speed along the process, but opted to revisit them one last time after public comment in case any significant changes were made.

Committee members expressed a willingness to also engage in the public hearing process in order to ensure they understand the public's concerns and have a venue to better voice theirs.

“I’m urging people to be involved in the public process because that’s the most expedited way,” to discuss and advance the rules, said committee member James Clift.