Michigan targets $23.2M to fight chemical contamination

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan environmental and health agencies would receive $23.2 million in new state funding to test, assess and develop cleanup plans for chemical contamination sites under a supplemental spending bill speeding to Gov. Rick Snyder for likely signature.

On the last planned day of voting in 2017, the Michigan Senate and House on Wednesday approved a $52.85 million appropriations plan. It would send $14.8 million to the state Department of Environmental Quality and $8.4 million to the Department of Health and Human Services to mitigate perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS.

At least 14 Michigan communities have sites known to have some level of PFAS in ground or drinking water supplies, according to the state. Problem areas include locations in Ann Arbor, the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and the former Wolverine Worldwide tannery and company dump sites in Rockford, Belmont and Plainfield Township.

While at least one state environmental specialist claims he sounded alarms about the potential threat five years ago, officials say they are still trying to understand the depth and breadth of PFAS contamination issues across Michigan.

“It is difficult when we’re dealing with emerging contaminants because there’s so much we don’t know about them,” said Susan Leeming, external relations deputy director for Department of Environmental Quality. “We don’t know specifically what health impacts there might be. We’re still doing the research to determine the toxicity levels of a number of the other chemicals in this family.”

PFAS were commonly used in a variety of industrial, food and textile industries over the past 50 years and have been used to make products such as firefighting foams, food packaging and cleaning products.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency considers PFAS an “emerging contaminate” and says exposure to high levels has been shown to hurt humans and animals in lab tests, including producing low infant birth weights and affecting immune system issues. Animal testing data also suggests a link between PFAS and cancer, according to the federal agency.

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-Dewitt, said lawmakers allocated enough money for the problem for now, but said there’s likely more to come.

“This is something that we are just now getting to the bottom of,” Leonard said.

But Senate Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said it wasn’t enough. He sponsored an amendment that Republicans rejected to restore the extra $16 million for the issue that Snyder had called for.

“You have to take this head on,” Singh said. “That’s why I wanted to see us make sure that we’re properly investigating this in the beginning, because this is a crisis that we have to take very seriously.”

State environmental deputy director Amy Epkey said the department is continually learning about PFAS.

“What we’re finding out is that high concentration and high exposure levels has the potential to be a public health” issue, she said.

The PFAS aid approved Wednesday is less than the $38.4 million Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration initially requested. It would allow DEQ to hire seven new full-time employees for support, technical assistance and community water supply sampling. Other funding would be used on assessments, remediation and laboratory testing equipment.

The state is currently outsourcing PFAS testing to labs in California “because we do not have the capacity in Michigan to conduct the lab sampling,” Epkey said.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services would receive funding for lab analysis, local public heath efforts and to employ eight full-time environmental health and toxicology experts.

Earlier Wednesday, lawmakers in a Senate committee, presented with full language of the spending proposal for the first time, questioned the science and specific equipment requests before advancing the legislation to the floor in a 9-0 vote with five abstentions.

Democrats sat out the vote after raising questions about separate language in the budget bill that would allow the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to expand its search for a viable site to build a new Home for Veterans that had been planned for Detroit.

The full Senate approved the bill in a 33-4 vote, with four Detroit-area Democrats voting “no” after failing to amend the veterans home language to require placement in the state’s largest city. The spending measure passed the House 109-1.

“I would have a significant concern about the ability of a home located in Livingston County to meaningfully serve the citizens of Detroit in any way,” said Sen. David Knezek, a Dearborn Heights Democrat and Marine Corps veteran.

The state runs a veterans home in Grand Rapids that Knezek said is difficult for family members in Detroit to reach. The budget bill would allow a new home to be built anywhere in southeast Michigan if the state cannot find a viable site in Wayne, Macomb or Oakland counties within 45 days.

“We sent poor black men to die in Vietnam,” Knezek said. “The least we can do is support them today by providing a place for them to serve out the end of their days with dignity and respect in the city of Detroit.”

Interest in addressing PFAS contamination has risen following public outcry from residents who live near contaminated sites.

In West Michigan, the Rockford-based Wolverine manufacturing company revealed that chemicals from making popular products like Hush Puppies, Stride Rite and Merrell shoes had leached into the area’s many wells. The number of dumping sites range from 40-45 and counting, state officials say.

As of October, officials said water in 22 homes had tested over the EPA’s 75 parts per trillion standard but did not have a specific number of homes where chemicals were detected.

Snyder last month signed an executive directive to coordinate Michigan’s response to PFAS.

“The science surrounding potential public health effects is still evolving, but the use of these chemicals is declining and research on how to deal with the contaminants is developing,” Snyder’s office said at the time.

Officials expect the U.S. Department of Defense will reimburse the state for contamination responses at military training sites and facilities, including Wurtswirth and Camp Grayling Army Airfield. The supplemental bill also directs agencies to use any available federal funding before spending the new state appropriations.

The budget bill would also appropriate $28.2 million in restricted revenue from the Michigan Infrastructure Fund for various projects, including $14 million to remediate and redevelop brownfield sites and $10.7 million for a statewide initiative to update water infrastructure.

General fund money earmarked for the PFAS fight come from a pot of roughly $280 million in “lapsed funding” that the state did not spend in the 2017 budget year that Sept. 30, according to Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand.

The additional lapsed funding will likely be applied to the 2019 budget that lawmakers will craft next year.

“We’ve got pressures in next year’s budget, and the majority of it should role over I the beginning balance for the ‘19 fiscal year we’ll be starting to discuss already in February,” he said.

Staff Writer Michael Gerstein contributed