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New PFAS rules set to take effect Aug. 3, among nation's strictest

Starting Aug. 3, Michigan will have some of the strictest rules in the nation limiting chemical contaminants in drinking water supplies. 

Rules governing the presence of seven per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals in drinking water will be filed with the Secretary of State's Office in the coming days after passing through the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

The rules governing 2,700 public water supplies exceed federal standards and could mean increased compliance costs for sites that fall short of the standards.

The new rules are likely to land more than 40 new sites onto the state's list of PFAS-contaminated areas, bringing the total to around 140. 

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.

The rules set maximum contaminant levels at 6 parts per trillion for PFNA; 8 ppt for PFOA; 400,000 ppt for PFHxA; 16 ppt for PFOS; 51 ppt for PFHxS; 420 ppt for PFBS and 370 ppt for HFPO-DA or Gen X.

The rules include guidelines for water sampling, treatment and the release of public health advisories when elevated chemical levels are found.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current health advisory level is 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS exposure through drinking water.

“These rules 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,” said Liesl Clark, director for the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. “We remain committed to working together to root out PFAS contamination, protect at-risk populations and drive down exposure levels.”

The “forever chemicals” were 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 Environmental Rules Review Committee, created in April 2019 to study stricter regulation of the chemicals, approved the final levels and rules to enforce them in February even as the U.S. EPA worked to set federal standards.

The levels had been developed and recommended to the rules review committee after a year-long study of Michigan’s water systems by EGLE and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. During that study, the state found more than 30 public water supplies had PFAS levels higher than 10 ppt. 

The new levels automatically will add 42 sites — including more than 20 landfills and a dozen former manufacturing or plating sites — to the state’s list of ongoing PFAS investigations.

“The PFAS levels previously detected at these sites and supplies have not necessarily changed, but the state’s regulations have become much more protective and give us a new tool in our shared mission of protecting people’s drinking water,” said Steve Sliver, executive director for the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.

The rules have garnered praise from state and national environmental groups, but drawn criticism from industry groups, who have argued the accelerated rule making process did not provide for “adequate scientific review.”

The Michigan Chemistry Council said the rules contain "several shortcomings that remain unaddressed" after a process for which federal, not state, regulators "are best-positioned" to complete. 

The Michigan Manufacturing Association was "deeply invested and engaged" in the development of the new standards but, like the chemistry council, the association saidat the state should rely on the research coming from the EPA. 

"We also will continue to push for greater clarity and consistency of regulations to ensure protection of  Michigan’s economic competitiveness, especially as Michigan works to recover from the economic damage and job loss associated with the pandemic," said Dave Greco, director of regulatory and environmental affairs for the association.

The number of chemicals regulated under Michigan’s new ruleset is more than any other state in the nation, but the rules fall short of address the full issue with the ubiquitous chemical, the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement Thursday. 

“…state regulators should have gone further to protect public health from PFAS by strengthening the limits for several of the individual PFAS chemicals; establishing a combined limit for the sum of the seven individual PFAS chemicals Michigan chose to regulate as state testing shows they are found in mixtures; and setting a limit for the total amount of all PFAS chemicals allowed in drinking water,” wrote Cyndi Roeper, a senior policy advocate for the council. 

The Democratic-led U.S. House on Tuesday approved a defense bill with a provision added by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, requiring the Pentagon to use the toughest standard applicable — whether it’s state or federal — when cleaning up PFAS-contaminated military installations like those in Michigan.

If passed into law, this would mean the Defense Department would have to meet Michigan’s stricter standard on PFAS. 

“As the EPA continues to drag its feet on a standard for what's safe and what's not safe on PFAS, our state has now come up with our own, strict limits –– and if enacted, my amendment will require the military to follow them,” Slotkin said. 

In committee, several House Republicans opposed Slotkin’s amendment, saying it would result in inconsistencies, drive up costs for the Pentagon and lead to operational problems at bases. 

“At some point in time, we need to have a consistency of standards,” U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, said during a hearing this month. “A patchwork doesn’t help the department do what it has to do for us, so I oppose it.” 

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed

eleblanc@detroitnews.com