Opinion: New drinking water crisis dwarfs Flint tragedy
Michigan once promoted itself as the Water Wonderland. Why not? The state borders four of the five Great lakes, boasts 3,200 miles of coastline, more than 11,000 inland lakes and thousands of miles of rivers and streams. For those who love water, Michigan is about as good as it gets.
But even with “water, water everywhere” we are likely to learn very soon there’s not a drop to drink. Not safely anyway. Not in Michigan and not in far too many places in the United States and around the world. If not solved, the catastrophe brewing across the state and in waterways throughout the country will make the tragedy that took place in Flint seem minor.
Michigan’s experience with emerging contaminants is a clarion call to a nation that has forgotten some critical lessons from the past. In all corners of the state, experts see a family of chemicals, once ubiquitous around the globe for decades, now linked to a series of deadly cancers, thyroid, autoimmune, metabolic and neurologic diseases, along with decreased fecundity and endocrine disruption.
Some scientists are also investigating if there may be a link between the explosion of autism cases diagnosed in America and these highly toxic chemicals, but so far, the connection has not been established.
The chemical culprits are commonly referred to as PFAS, PFOA and PFCs; the scientific names are long and nearly impossible to pronounce, but their threat to people and animals cannot be overstated, according to research conducted by The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and others.
Bob Delaney has worked in the Michigan DEQ for more than three decades. In 2011 he set out, along with Richard DeGrandchamp, a University of Michigan-educated toxicologist from the University of Colorado-Denver, to evaluate the health problems associated with PFCs and its many industrial cousins on the grounds of the defunct Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich. What they discovered was evidence of an environmental catastrophe that will dwarf just about any other.
The final report, “Michigan’s Contaminant Induced Human Health Crisis,” was completed in 2012. Relying on peer-reviewed studies, including the C8 Project with 70,000 test subjects, the report concluded, in part, that PFCs and related manmade chemicals found at the former base and its surroundings resulted in liver damage, increased rates of ADHD, delayed sexual maturity, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, birth defects, immune system deficiencies and autoimmune diseases. The list of linked or possibly linked diseases reads like a list of modern plagues our nation faces.
The report was delivered to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in 2012 but nothing changed and, worse, nothing was done to warn people about the dangers of the water they drink, bathe in or eat fish from. The report was dropped into a drawer, kept hidden from the public and forgotten.
Despite having his report buried, Delaney kept up his efforts to warn others of the dire health concerns but was largely ignored until he was interviewed on The Michigan Talk Network in October 2017. Delaney knew he was taking a gamble by speaking out and could even lose his job for telling the truth for all to hear. He did it anyway because he said something had to be done to warn the public.
The Michigan Talk Network obtained a copy of the report before the interview with Delaney. The report wasn’t made public until a FOIA request in January of 2018.
In light of the fallout from the lead contamination issue in Flint, Delaney first tried to get immunity from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office before going public, but after his requests were ignored, he proceeded with the interview and blew the whistle.
The PFCs Delaney described during his two hours on air are “highly mobile, indestructible and it spreads everywhere. So, once you drop it into the environment, it’s going to move everywhere.” Delaney said his curiosity stemmed from his son’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and his career as a geologist and environmental quality specialist focused on Department of Defense contamination sites. So, he started to dig.
His research was unsettling. The more he looked, the worse the evidence became, not only for people but for animals in the path of PFCs. He learned PFCs would go through natural barriers that would stop other contaminants. He also found the contaminants in very high levels in fish caught in the Au Sable River, designated a Blue Ribbon trout stream: “I wouldn’t eat the fish. … I would not let my kids eat the fish.”
This could be the most pervasive and destructive human health crisis in American history. What’s worse, the United States government and huge multinational corporations such as 3M and DuPont knew of these dangers long ago, as the New York Times reported.
One of the main compounds that contains perfluorinated carboxylic acids is Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam or AFFF. A-triple-F is incredibly effective at extinguishing intense fires fed with aviation fuel. The United States government began using AFFF in the early 1970s, and it has been used at military bases both at home and abroad ever since. Nobody realized the health hazards, and even firefighters let their children play in the foam. Although they did not know the health risks, they did know if a plane exploded in flames and seconds counted, AFFF was the only chance to stop it fast. It saved lives.
It also made its way into the environment in a way that Delaney says he had never seen any other chemical spread (except mercury, which is naturally occurring). At places like Wurtsmith Air Force Base, AFFF was used sometimes daily, in large amounts during training exercises. The PFCs soaked into the ground and made their way to nearby wells and the Au Sable.
By the time Wurtsmith was decommissioned in 1993 the damage was already done, according to Delaney and DeGrandchamp, the report's co-author. The PFCs had been consumed by the servicemen and -women and their families who lived on the base and those living in Oscoda.
While people still argue about lead levels in Flint, which is a legitimate concern, a much bigger and much more dangerous storm has gathered at our door. The prevalence of PFCs will dwarf what happened there.
Unlike the lead problems in Flint, politicians, at least for now, say this is not a political issue but a matter of human health. Dan Kildee, a Democratic congressman from Flint, and Bill Huizenga, a Republican congressman from Grand Rapids, both agree that this transcends politics and should be a priority. “This is an epic problem,” acknowledged Kildee. “Our main focus has to be on cleaning this stuff up and keeping it out of the groundwater.” Kildee, however, expressed frustration in his dealings with the Air Force, which that has been slow to respond to his questions about how cleanup will be handled.
It might be a bit more tolerable if PFCs were limited to military bases, but the chemicals can be traced to refineries, plating facilities, tanneries, carpet manufacturers, Teflon-coating and waterproofing products. The simple truth is, PFCs are everywhere, and they can kill you. (Delaney noted that “polar bears have the highest levels of PFCs of any manmade materials.”)
The New York Times foreshadowed the expanding crisis in a 2016 article. The report chronicled the poisoning of a West Virginia farm owned by Wilbur Tennant. The farm, outside Parkersburg, started to experience dramatic and devastating changes not long after a nearby dump was opened.
When Tennant’s animals started dying, the town’s largest employer, DuPont, in effect deployed the silent treatment and so did its employees, according to reports. Tennant became persona non grata and was accused of poor animal husbandry even though his farm and cattle had thrived for years. By the late 1990s they were dying all around him, and their organs were turning green. County health inspectors and local veterinarians blamed him and ignored the dump. They didn’t want to go after the biggest employer in the county. They didn’t want to cry wolf even when it was obvious the wolf was loose.
Bob Delaney asserted during his radio interview that neither the government nor corporations want to accept responsibility because the problem is just too big to fix and too expensive to solve.
Remediation will take billions and possibly trillions of dollars. DuPont has found itself on the hook for billions of dollars to settle thousands of claims from West Virginia, but most companies that manufactured or distributed PFCs are looking the other way and hoping they can avoid a similar financial catastrophe.
The United States military takes the position in Michigan that anything that happens beyond its fence isn’t its problem.
There is a ray of hope, however.
According to senior members of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, the government went into crisis mode the day following Delaney’s radio appearance last October. Snyder had previously been stung politically by the Flint water crisis and was not willing to allow a similar situation to unfold. He worked quickly, freed up resources and let it be known that his administration was ready to help with whatever was needed to begin addressing the contamination crisis. The state is also moving forward on building new labs to expedite the testing of water samples from Michigan without having to ship them elsewhere for evaluation.
So far Michigan has identified at least 200 sites around the state where PFCs have impacted either groundwater or surface water. The monumental task of cleaning up is just getting started.
The question, however, is: Will it come too late for the Water Wonderland? The picturesque Huron River, once touted as a premier fly-fishing destination, has recently been determined to be contaminated with PFCs too and the fish there are unsafe to eat. The entire Huron Watershed, encompassing five counties, now has signs warning anglers about their catch and the health dangers fish from those waters could pose.
In the meantime, both Delaney and DeGrandchamp strongly suggest residents have their water tested -- or skip the middleman and go straight to buying a high-quality water purification system that eliminates PFCs. They both admit that even if one’s water is shown to be safe today, that is no guarantee it will be safe tomorrow.
Steve Gruber is an award-winning syndicated conservative radio talk show host with 25 affiliates in Michigan. This first appeared at Real Clear Politics.