State panel OKs new PFAS rules as industry concerns linger

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A state panel this week gave one of the final approvals to new rules governing Michigan drinking water standards for a class of chemical contaminants despite lingering concerns from chemists and farmers about the rules’ speedy implementation. 

The Environmental Rules Review Committee approved maximum contaminant levels for the presence of per- and polyflouralkyl substances, known as PFAS, in drinking water even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency works on federal standards.

Jessica Hart and Chad McAlvey work at Merit Labs in East Lansing, which is certified by multiple agencies for PFAS testing.  The labs use this $600,000 Liquid Cromatography-Mass Spectrometry machine in the foreground to search for the compounds.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year set an aggressive timeline for implementing the rules by April to address the chemicals' presence in drinking water supplies.

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 vote Thursday — in which eight members voted in favor and two abstained — showed “broad support” for the protections, which included input from a scientific advisory panel, industry and municipal stakeholders and months of public comment, said Liesl Clark, director for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.  

"You had seven state departments plus an outside group of experts who stood behind the science of these recommended values," said Steve Sliver, executive director for the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.

Whitmer earlier this year directed EGLE and MPART 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 by October, and held public hearings earlier this year on the rules.

Maya Murshak is one of the owners of Merit Labs in East Lansing which does PFAS testing and is certified by multiple agencies. The labs use Liquid Cromatography-Mass Spectrometry machines to search for the compounds. Samples and containers and markers crowd the workspace in the foreground.

The rules, which are expected to be reviewed by a legislative panel before being filed with the Secretary of State in April, would set thresholds for seven kinds of PFAS chemicals and apply to roughly 2,700 public water system operators around the state.

The 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 much stricter than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level, which rests at 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS exposure through drinking water. The EPA is working to develop new thresholds for the chemicals, but moving at a decidedly slower pace that Michigan lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, have criticized.

The rules include guidelines for water sampling, treatment and the release of public health advisories. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council praised the people-powered push for stronger drinking water standards in Michigan that could "lead the nation," but advocated for stricter thresholds than those approved. 

"While Michigan could have gone further to protect public health based on the science, we need swift action to get these new rules finalized so that we can begin to lower people’s exposure to these harmful chemicals as quickly as possible," said the council's Cyndi Roper.

The Michigan Chemistry Council expressed concerns about the expedited process for the rules’ approval that may not have provided time for “adequate scientific review,” said John Dulmes, the council's executive director. Normally, similar rules take three to four years for approval at the federal level, Dulmes said. 

“The state had never developed a drinking water rule before and, considering the amount of issues involved, to do it in just one year is really extraordinary,” Dulmes said. 

Sliver pushed back on that assertion, noting it spent all of 2018 testing water sources for a gauge on contamination levels statewide, a step that is usually part of the EPA's three to four-year process.

Equipment used to test for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals) in drinking water at Trident Laboratories in Holland, 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.

The narrower time frame "didn’t mean that it was rushed," Sliver said. "What it meant was that we had to condense all of our resources into that period of time.”

The Michigan Farm Bureau took no position on the rules or the process taken to reach the ones approved Thursday, but it does have concerns about the impact the new rules may have on small water supplies, said Laura Campbell, manager of the bureau’s agricultural ecology department. 

The bureau is aware of at least four dozen farms or agricultural processors in Michigan that would fall under the definition of a public water supply, Campbell said. If the water at those locations exceeded the state’s new PFAS standards, the facilities would have to install more than $200,000 in treatment equipment and spend thousands more dollars to maintain the system.   

The bureau has asked the state to provide farms or small communities financial assistance or, at the  least, more time to implement the changes if they’re needed, Campbell said.

“If they find high levels of PFAS in their drinking water, they’re going to need help,” Campbell said. 

The Legislature and federal agencies have provided financial assistance in the past, and the intent of the program is not take immediate "aggressive enforcement action," said Scott Dean a spokesman for EGLE. 

Rather, Dean said, the intent is "to help the entities impacted by these new rules to succeed in providing clean water."

PFAS maximum levels

Proposed maximum content levels for certain chemical contaminants in drinking water in Michigan.

PFNA: 6 ppt

PFOA: 8 ppt

PFHxA: 400,000 ppt

PFOS: 16 ppt

PFHxS: 51 ppt

PFBS: 420 ppt

GenX: 370 ppt

Source: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy