Michigan launches 'huge' effort to collect contaminant firefighting foam

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A statewide push to collect firefighting foam that contains PFAS, one of the so-called "forever chemicals," launched Thursday in a fire station just blocks from the Michigan Capitol.

Dozens of white five-gallon pails holding the foam sat in stacks inside a Lansing Fire Department garage. Then, workers from U.S. Ecology began moving the pails on to a truck that would take them to a waste facility in Southeast Michigan.

Asked how many of the pails will be making a similar journey as U.S. Ecology collects more than 35,000 gallons of the foam statewide, Alex Hurley, the company's director of government and community relations, laughed and said, "A lot."

Pails of firefighting foam containing PFAS sit in a Lansing Fire Department garage on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Michigan has launched a statewide initiative to collect and dispose of the foam.

Michigan is working to reduce its use of firefighting foam with PFAS. The topic will be discussed at the Great Lakes Virtual PFAS Summit Dec. 6-10, 2021.

The pails collected Thursday marked the start of a $1.4 million state initiative to collect firefighting foam containing PFAS and to dispose of it, ensuring that the chemicals in the foam won't make their way into Michigan's water systems. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy hired U.S. Ecology, which has facilities in the state, to carry out the initiative.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified PFAS as an emerging contaminant.

Michigan has identified more than 30 contamination sites that have tested positive for the potentially harmful class of fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS — long used in products such as Teflon, Scotchgard and firefighting foam that are resistant to water, grease or stains. The chemicals don't break down in the environment and build up over time in blood and organs, according to EGLE.

Health officials have said the continued exposure to certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water could harm human health. Studies link exposure to developmental effects on fetuses, cancer and effects on liver and immunity function, among other issues.

The collection of the foam comes after Kevin Sehlmeyer, Michigan's state fire marshal, led a survey to determine how many fire departments had the aqueous film forming foam containing PFAS in their inventories and wanted to get rid of it.

Sehlmeyer said the state has surveyed more than 1,000 fire departments with 784 responding as of Thursday. Of those, 336 departments said they had the specific type of foam.

U.S. Ecology employees began transporting pails of firefighting foam containing PFAS from the Lansing Fire Department to a truck on  Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. The effort was part of a $1.4 million to collect and dispose of the foam.

The foam in question is used primarily to extinguish diesel gas fires and aviation fires, said Sehlmeyer, who was a firefighter in Grand Rapids for more than 30 years.

Some departments want to keep their inventories of the foam because they don't have alternative foams, while others were willing to give up a portion of their inventories, he said. 

"This is an opportunity to get as much of it as we can but realizing down the road there will be other foam that we'll have to deal with," Sehlmeyer added.

The Lansing department stopped using the foam containing PFAS about three years ago when the department first heard of the environmental dangers linked to it, said Teresa Robinson, assistant fire chief in Lansing.

The department has since been using a water-based alternative. The dozens of pails the department handed over on Thursday had been sitting in storage, Robinson said.

Hurley of U.S. Ecology said the pails of foam the company collects across Michigan will ultimately end up in Idaho, where the products will be solidified and put into a landfill. The foam will be sent to Idaho because the state's climate is arid and there's less risk of contamination there, said Debbie Oleksienko, the regional manager at U.S. Ecology who's overseeing the collection.

Two U.S. Ecology workers stand inside a Lansing Fire Department garage on Thursday. The workers took dozens of pails of firefighting foams containing PFAS away from the department through a $1.4 million state initiative.

Steve Sliver, executive director of Michigan's PFAS Action Response Team, described the collection as a "huge" undertaking. He said four other states have launched such initiatives.

"The whole idea is prevention," Sliver said. "If it's not needed, that's the greatest reason alone to get it out of the inventory and disposed in a place that we can monitor long term."