Michigan activist urges swifter action by feds on PFAS contamination

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Equipment used to test for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals) in drinking water at Trident Laboratories in Holland, Mich., pictured on Monday, June 18, 2018. Trident Labs added testing for perfluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS, in March after toxic contamination was identified at a former tannery near Rockford.

Washington — A Michigan activist told a U.S. Senate panel Wednesday that there needs to be swifter federal action on drinking-water contamination by a potentially harmful class of fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS.

A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee heard from federal agencies about the government's role in the crisis, as well as from individuals from affected communities including Oscoda. 

Watch live: https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/hearings/the-federal-role-in-the-toxic-pfas-chemical-crisis

Arnie Leriche, community co-chair of the Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board and a former environmental engineer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said he retired to Oscoda largely because he wanted to go fishing on the Au Sable River, Lake Huron and surrounding inland lakes. 

Then he learned in 2012 about advisories not to eat the fish he'd caught due to PFAS contamination from the nearby former Wurthsmith Air Force Base. 

"I appreciate that the Air Force has taken some steps to address contamination at Wurtsmith, but our water is still poisoned, and we still cannot eat what we catch," Leriche said in submitted testimony. 

"I am glad that the EPA and (Department of Defense) are beginning to acknowledge this problem and think about steps to fix it. But the people of Oscoda don't have any more time for delay or missteps. We need action now."

He noted a beach on Van Etten Lake, formerly owned by the Air Force, where a bright white foam washes up on shore. There is a health advisory against ingesting the foam.

Air Force testing of the foam has found PFAS levels of 165,000 parts per trillion, Leriche said. The EPA's current health advisory level is 70 parts per trillion.

"Would you want your children and grandchildren playing in that water? Would you want them eating the fish?" Leriche asked senators. 

About 20 Michigan activists came to Washington for the hearing, representing groups such as the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and Need Our Water Oscoda, organizers said.

“We’ve witnessed first-hand the failure of our state to properly inform and protect Michigan residents from PFAS," said Cody Angell, co-founder of Michigan Demands Action Against Contamination.

"Our health is on the line, and we came to Washington today to demand action."

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, noted a Michigan resident, Sandy Wynn-Stelt of Belmont, in the hearing room who was exposed to one of the highest concentrations of PFAS that has been identified in the United States.

She now has PFAS levels in her blood that are more than 750 times the national average, said Peters, the ranking Democrat of the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management. 

“As a senator from Michigan, a state surrounded by the Great Lakes, the world’s largest source of surface freshwater, I’m appalled by the number of water crises we’ve faced,” Peters said in his opening statement.

“My constituents and people across the country facing this crisis are fed up as well.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican who chairs the subcommittee, convened the hearing but no other GOP senators participated. 

PFAS compounds, which build up in the environment and the body, have been used in manufacturing to make carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, packaging for food and other products resistant to water, grease or stains.

Michigan has 35 confirmed PFAS sites, including four public water supplies and five active or former military grounds, according to the state.

Tammy Cooper came to Washington on Wednesday from Parchment, Kalamazoo County, where health officials last month found PFAS levels 26 times greater than the lifetime federal health advisory.

She's worried for her 3-year-old daughter, who is still nursing, because Cooper is likely still passing the chemicals to her, even though their tap water has been cleared to drink, she said. 

"We need help. Small towns like Parchment need funding," Cooper said. "The burden shouldn't be put on taxpayers who aren't responsible for contaminating the water in the first place."

Environmental activists and some lawmakers have urged the EPA to set a national, enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water, which it has not done. 

The current health advisory level of 70 ppt set in 2016 can't be used to enforce cleanups or regulate the chemicals' use, they say.

Peter Grevatt of the EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water testified that the agency is not looking at revising the 70 ppt advisory level, despite a Health and Human Services' assessment earlier this year that PFAS can cause risks to human health at lower levels than the 70 ppt. 

"As the science continues to develop, we will look back at this issue," Grevatt told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire. 

EPA will consider designating the the well-known PFAS compounds PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances" under the Superfund statute, and it's developing  groundwater cleanup recommendations for certain PFAS-contaminated sites, Grevatt said.

Peters said after the hearing that congressional action will be important in ensuring the EPA sets these guidelines.  

"You heard we were pressing today as to what is the timeline, and do you have enough information to make some of these determinations?," Peters said. 

"That is something that has to be done. Particularly when you consider these are chemicals that are part of everyday life, from the fabric on your sofa to the non-stick frying pan. We are all exposed to this. It's something that must be addressed." 

Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense, environment, safety and occupational health, testified that the military has identified 401 active and former U.S. installations worldwide with a known or suspected release of PFOS or PFOA.

Starting in the 1970s, the Department of Defense used firefighting foam containing PFOS and sometimes PFOA for emergency response and training.

The military has not yet found a fluorine-free firefighting foam that meets its specifications but has stopped using the foam for training and testing, Sullivan said.

“We have invested a significant amount of money in research. I’m going to say it’s going to take two to three years," she told Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire. 

The Senate will soon consider Federal Aviation Administration legislation that would remove federal mandates requiring the use of these chemicals in firefighting foams, Peters said. 

Airports are required to use fluorinated foam because it's the military standard, he said. 

“We have to keep pushing the DOD to keep looking for alternatives as well," Peters said.

Leriche expressed frustration over the Defense Department's "troublesome" delays on cleanup at Wurtsmith. 

"The timing of their investigation and how long it takes them to investigate a site … has been very frustrating because it’s linked so significantly to the (EPA’s) lifetime health advisory," he said. 

"If they had the money and interpretation of the national policy to support real and quick remediation, then we would have had much more done at this point."

Health officials say 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, as well as cognitive and behavioral effects in exposed children. 

Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health, said findings are limited on the health effects of PFAS because "we don’t have data on thousands of PFAS compounds."

"With so many PFAS compounds, we cannot test our way out of this," Birnbaum said.