Fighting Forever Chemicals: Michigan Governor, Feds Take Action

The logjam that has halted progress in dealing with PFAS, the toxic “forever chemicals” that plague communities across Michigan and the nation, is finally breaking up.

On October 27, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered state government to discontinue the purchase of many PFAS-containing products, as encouraged by FLOW last month. In a message to the Governor’s environmental advisor, FLOW and PFAS activist Tony Spaniola wrote, “The purchase and use of materials containing PFAS is an obstacle to reducing their presence in the environment and to reducing human health and environmental exposure. Because state government is a major purchaser of goods, this reality provides an opportunity for Governor Whitmer to show the way for other governments and the business sector to reduce PFAS in the supply chain.”

In signing her October 27 executive directive, the Governor, whose support was critical in enacting health-protective state drinking water standards for PFAS last year, said, “PFAS are dangerous, man-made chemicals that pose a threat to our health. While this is a good step, we still have so much more to do to address these forever chemicals. We need to lead with science and work together to keep families safe and ensure Michigan continues leading the nation when it comes to protecting people from toxic contaminants.”

Nine days earlier, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan announced a national PFAS strategy, the first proposed comprehensive federal effort to curtail PFAS threats to human health and the environment. While winning praise for many provisions, the strategy has been criticized for failing to address contamination from military facilities like the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda.

The action message was also the centerpiece of a webinar co-hosted on October 21 by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV) and FLOW. While MLCV introduced a toolkit for residents of communities affected by PFAS, U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell provided an update on her federal legislation, the  PFAS Action Act.

PFAS are a class of more than 4,700 different chemicals, poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS can take thousands of years to break down. PFAS are most dangerous when ingested by drinking or eating. PFAS have been linked to health effects such as impaired immune response, high cholesterol, and altered liver function. Other possible health effects include difficulty getting pregnant, kidney disease, heart disease, osteoarthritis, and some cancers.

The webinar was the second hosted by MLCV and FLOW in response to PFAS contamination confirmed in private drinking water wells in the Pine Grove neighborhood of East Bay Township near Traverse City in fall 2020. The contamination was found after state agencies decided to investigate groundwater near Cherry Capital Airport and a U.S. Coast Guard facility that used firefighting foams containing PFAS in training exercises for years. Residents of 18 homes in the Pine Grove neighborhood whose wells were contaminated with PFAS are now supplied with drinking water by Traverse City.

Controversy arose after it was learned that state officials waited eight months after commencing the investigation before notifying the affected residents. A citizens advisory group has now recommended that state officials should notify potentially affected residents as soon as the state commences a PFAS study.

FLOW provided updates on several issues related to the PFAS contamination in the Traverse City area:

  • The Traverse City drinking water treatment plant has reported that quarterly testing of East Bay, the source of the city’s drinking water, has not detected PFAS, but testing of treated drinking water has shown low levels of a PFAS compound, PFOA, though below the state health standard.
  • Cherry Capital Airport has submitted a grant application to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for $1.25 million to begin cleaning up the plume of contamination. 
  • The FAA has issued an alert informing airports that the use of non-PFAS firefighting foams will be allowed, but none meet the current specification requirements. The FAA expects that the U.S. Navy will be providing a specification for a PFAS-free firefighting material by January 31, 2023, and the FAA looks to adopt this specification.
  • Because the FAA agreed that PFAS firefighting foams do not need to be used in training exercises, Cherry Capital Airport’s use now should be zero unless there is an aircraft accident. 
  • The airport and Coast Guard are conducting further investigation of the PFAS-contaminated groundwater this fall, with results expected in early 2022, The study will include borings in the Pine Grove neighborhood.

Dingell’s PFAS Action Act, which passed the U.S. House 241-183 in July, would require EPA to take action to address two PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — through a number of regulatory provisions:

  • Designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund).
  • Designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
  • Requiring EPA to establish national drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS. 
  • Requiring EPA to place discharge limits on industrial releases of PFAS.
  • Providing $200 million annually for wastewater treatment.
  • Prohibiting unsafe incineration of PFAS waste.
  • Placing a moratorium on the introduction of new PFAS chemicals into commerce.
  • Requiring comprehensive PFAS health testing.
  • Creating a voluntary label for PFAS in cookware.

Dingell urged webinar participants to express support for the bill to Michigan’s U.S. Senators.

Leaders from communities impacted by PFAS recently announced the launch of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network (GLPAN), a coalition led by impacted community members to create a unified voice for action on PFAS contamination.

3M and PFAS: An Attack on Public Health and Michigan’s Drinking Water Rules

Photos of Clark’s Marsh by Anthony Spaniola

By Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

It’s not often that two high-ranking officials in Michigan’s state government lash out at a company in strong language. But that’s what happened May 7 when Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Liesl Clark, the director of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) slammed 3M.

The trigger for their statement was a lawsuit filed April 21 by 3M in the Michigan Court of Claims to block state drinking water rules adopted in August 2020. The standards, which protect public health by setting maximum allowable levels of seven toxic PFAS compounds in public drinking water supplies, were promised by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in her 2018 campaign. They are among the strongest standards in the nation for these “forever chemicals,” which remain in the environment indefinitely. 3M has manufactured PFAS chemicals since the 1950s.

PFAS are a group of chemicals used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. These coatings can be used in such products as clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, firefighting foam, and the insulation of electrical wire. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), PFAS have been linked to human health effects, including an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, decreased vaccine response in children, an increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and decreased birthweight. PFAS have been found in at least 166 locations in Michigan. The CDC conducted a study between 2000-2014 that found 98% of Americans have some amount of PFAS in their blood, according to the State of Michigan.

3M knows it is responsible to address contamination in Michigan and it has been unwilling to do so,” said Attorney General Nessel. “Now, it wants to change the rules so that it can continue to shirk its responsibility to Michigan residents and to the health of the water resources that define our state.”

Nessel added, “We will not tolerate these poisons in our environment and our drinking water, and we will not tolerate a corporation like 3M putting its dollars ahead of our health and our water.” 

3M’s lawsuit argues that the rules adopted by Michigan are scientifically flawed and were approved via a process that the company terms hasty and designed to suit the Governor’s timeline. But the Michigan PFAS rules went through a rigorous process, including the establishment of an expert science panel to review studies and recommend appropriate standards. The draft rules were then subject to a public comment process and public review by two state committees.

Michigan’s decision to set state PFAS drinking water standards was due in part to the failure of the Trump Administration to pursue national standards. On Trump’s last full day in office January 19, his EPA finally announced a plan to set standards for the two most well-studied PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, five months after Michigan’s PFAS rules took effect. Federal rule-making can take several years.

Last month, the state’s Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) announced that Michigan’s approximately 2,700 municipal and other large public drinking water supplies are meeting the state’s new PFAS standards.

Attorney General Nessel in January 2020 sued 3M and 16 other companies for damaging Michigan’s environment by deliberately concealing the dangers of PFAS and withholding scientific evidence, and “intentionally, knowingly and recklessly” putting at risk Michigan’s natural resources and public health. In August 2020, she sued 3M and other manufacturers of firefighting foam containing PFAS. The litigation is still pending.

In 2018, the state of Minnesota settled a lawsuit against 3M Company for $850 million. The state sued 3M in 2010, alleging that the company’s production of PFAS had damaged drinking water and natural resources in the Twin Cities metro area. About $720 million of the settlement is being invested in drinking water and natural resource projects in the Twin Cities east metropolitan region.

PFAS and the Public: State of Michigan Owes Affected Communities the Truth

A faucet outside the home of a Pine Grove resident forced to drink bottled water in the Fall of 2020 out of fear that their tap water may be contaminated with PFAS. Photo by Holly Wright.

In February 2020, a state team led by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) began an investigation into the possibility of PFAS contamination spreading in groundwater north of Cherry Capital Airport and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station to drinking water wells in the nearby Pine Grove neighborhood of East Bay Township, near Traverse City.

Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS have been associated with adverse health effects ranging from increased cholesterol levels to an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer. A PFAS compound has been used in firefighting foams used in training at airports.

But state officials did not tell residents of 18 potentially affected homes of the investigation until October 2020, when they confirmed PFAS in the water of the 18 homeowners’ wells. The homeowners were understandably angry that eight months passed after the investigation started before they were made aware of it. Some might have taken precautions to avoid even the chance of exposure to the pollutants.

In response to the homeowners’ concerns, officials from the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) said they had not wanted to alarm affected residents of the neighborhood, preferring to have data in hand before they advised them. At a recent public meeting of the Citizens Advisory Working Group (CAWG) to MPART, members of PFAS-contaminated communities across the state challenged that rationale.

The effect on Pine Grove residents has been profound. In October 2020, longtime residents Carol and Philip Popa told former FLOW intern Holly Wright—who also lives in the neighborhood—that they were “having a hard time” feeling comfortable brushing their teeth with tap water. “I could have cancer because of them,” Philip said. 

Tony Spaniola, a cottage owner near Oscoda, where the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base has contaminated groundwater and surface water with PFAS from firefighting foams, was particularly outraged. “In Oscoda, we live daily with the consequences of EGLE/DEQ’s tunnel-vision and minimizing statements and conduct,” Spaniola said. “For our sake, and for the sake of other communities around the state, EGLE should learn a lesson and not allow past mistakes to be repeated and amplified.”  

This lesson is one that has eluded state officials for almost 50 years. When PBB fire retardant was accidentally mixed with cattle feed and entered Michigan’s food chain in 1973, the Michigan Departments of Agriculture and Public Health initially played down the human health threat, angering farmers with dying livestock and fanning public fear of a cancer outbreak.

Similar chemical threats from the 1980s into the 2000s were also often brushed aside by state agencies. Then, in 2014 and 2015, when lead in the drinking water of Flint reached levels of concern, state officials minimized the threat and attempted to portray residents raising concerns about the lead as grossly exaggerating. In the end, the officials were proven wrong—but approximately 99,000 residents of Flint were exposed to lead and long-term effects are likely for some.

Hoping to make sure this didn’t happen again, on her second day in office, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed her first executive directive establishing the policy that, “Action to mitigate or prevent threats to public health, safety, and welfare always should take precedence over any ill-advised attempt to protect the reputation of a department or agency, manipulate public perception, avoid political backlash, or engage in defensiveness, self-justification, or insular conduct. 

The directive went on to say, “If state government has information about an imminent threat to public health, safety, or welfare, the People of the State of Michigan have a right to know. State government must be open, transparent, and accountable to Michigan residents, even when a department, agency, or state officer falls short of the duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public we serve.

MPART fell well short of the Governor’s standard when it failed to inform residents of the Pine Grove neighborhood, early and transparently, about the possibility of PFAS in their well water. Although MPART members are talking about a new “communications protocol” for similar situations in the future, this overcomplicates the problem. Affected members of the public have a right to know about potential chemical threats to their health as soon as state officials have reason to believe the threat may exist. It’s simple: assume the public can handle the truth—and tell the truth in a timely way.

The good news is that at little or no cost to themselves, homeowners are being connected to the Traverse City municipal drinking water supply, which is drawn from East Grand Traverse Bay. They will no longer be drinking and bathing in PFAS-contaminated water. Let’s hope no damage was done—beyond the damage to government credibility.

PFAS-tainted Groundwater Emergency Threatens Traverse City Residents’ Wells and Well-Being

By Holly N. Wright, FLOW Special Contributor

“We brought you some water; we hope it helps,” say two volunteers from the nearby Presbyterian Church of Traverse City during a visit to my residence on October 21 in the Pine Grove neighborhood of Traverse City’s East Bay Township. “We have meals prepared for folks on Thursdays to help during the COVID-19 pandemic; we can feed you, too. Please let us know if you need anything.”

Their offer of water and food feels thoughtful and sincere, and also brings to my mind receiving a post-funeral dish. I feel a deep sense of loss.

News has just broken that drinking water wells in East Bay Township, just a few blocks from Traverse City’s eastern edge and just across US-31 from East Grand Traverse Bay, may be contaminated by PFAS—what are being called “forever chemicals.”

My well. My neighbors’ wells. Our wells… our water… the water that many in my neighborhood use for drinking and cooking; the water that our households consume.

News articles hit. The Traverse City Record-Eagle reports, as does The Ticker, that about 20 homes and one business may have been using drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals — possibly for decades. The word “cancer” jumps off the screen wherever it appears.

State environmental regulators launch efforts to determine whether wells in the Pine Grove neighborhood are contaminated. The new investigation comes after a series of state-installed groundwater monitoring wells returned elevated results for various PFAS chemicals. Sampling wells monitored by state environmental regulators detected levels of PFAS above the acceptable range.

I became aware of this serious situation via a letter in my mailbox dated October 19 from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), which stated: “Your water well may be contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) compounds related to contamination at the East Bay site near Cherry Capital Airport and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station.”

I re-read the letter, once, twice; a handful of blocky paragraphs of formal and vague content. A letter that, not so long ago, I may have disregarded as non-urgent. “Evaluating… if contamination… was detected… groundwater…”

It’s personal and professional for me. I work in, around, and for water. Currently, I serve as intern for the Glen Lake Association and am preparing to graduate from the Freshwater Studies Program through Northwestern Michigan College. In summer of 2019, I interned with FLOW. Despite my having, on my part, a basic understanding of the PFAS issue, I struggle to process the letter.  

They’re requesting permission to sample the well. A contractor will call to set up an appointment to take a water sample. Results may take… “a few weeks.” There are some websites and numbers for more information — including information to contact the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Grand Traverse County Health Department. Until a recommendation can be provided by the State of Michigan, residents can get bottled water for free at the fire station. As a “precaution.”

Later, loading four cases of bottled water into my vehicle at the fire station on Parsons Road near Three Mile Road, equipped with a new voucher for the next week, it’s really sinking in — this is a thing. This is going to be a thing — but I do not know what to expect. This unknown feels disturbing. Unsettling. 

A complexity: Gratitude for access to the bottled water alongside grievance with the product. This water, diverted from elsewhere, probably contains microplastics; its own style of potential nastiness. My bin is filling up fast with many individual plastic Aquafina-brand bottles. Wait, are these actually recyclable? The packaging is unclear. I should find out if it’s recyclable… I should find out… which number to call… 

At a virtual town hall meeting on October 26, representatives from EGLE and MDHHS present many slides with data and maps. It’s a lot to take in. Can I rely on these government agencies to observe good methods and to have my back? How are other households viewing this situation and coping? Questions — and emotions like sadness and anger, arise. It’s complicated. I’m not sure how to feel.

Connecting with others helps. Carol and Phillip Popa, longtime Pine Grove owners, love their home with its custom woodwork, built on-site, one of the neighborhood’s earliest houses and Carol’s childhood home. Talking, we laugh and agree that the plastic bottle situation is “a pain” and that we’re getting too much election mail; and that the October 26 town hall presentation was challenging to attend, mentally. But when I hear Carol say that she’s “having a hard time” feeling comfortable brushing her teeth with tap water, I cringe; and when Phillip says, “I could have cancer because of them,” I’m numb. It’s not good. It’s not right.

As the Popas tell me about their lifelong connections with water as Michiganders — fishing, boating, rock hunting — activities enjoyed in the past and now; I reflect on my own relationship with my threatened tap water. 

The water that flows from my tap is the water that flows below my home. 

I am connected to that water. That ancient groundwater, connected to surface water. Everything is connected in the watershed by the hydrologic cycle. 

So when my heart aches over poisoned water, it aches also for the life connected to the water. From the little aquatic insects to the fish and the people — many lives all over this great State of Michigan. Inseparable. Degraded.

Groundwater is invisible. My grief feels nebulous and difficult to attach. 

As of this week, AECOM, the engineering firm contracted by EGLE, will be coming by to sample my well. 

I can wait. I can reach out for support and information. I will pay attention.

State of the Great Lakes?

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

This month, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) issued the 2019 State of the Great Lakes Report.

While legitimately showcasing much good news about policies and programs benefiting the Lakes, the report joined the ranks of many that don’t say enough about the conditions of the Great Lakes themselves.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the Michigan Legislature and Governor in 1985 enacted a statutory requirement for an annual report on the state of the Great Lakes, they envisioned a science-based report card on the health of the waters and related resources of the Lakes themselves. Which pollutants are increasing and which are decreasing in Great Lakes waters? What are quantitative trends in beach closings and key populations of critical aquatic species? What  indicators of climate change are manifesting in the Great Lakes? 

But almost since the first day, and especially under former Gov. John Engler, Michigan’s Great Lakes report has amounted mostly to agency self-praise for a job well done.

Likewise, other Great Lakes institutions have had struggles coming up with objective indicators measuring the health of the Lakes, although they are now making some progress. Under the US-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 2012, the two nations are required to issue a State of the Great Lakes report every three years. Released in May, the most recent report finds:

“Overall, the Great Lakes are assessed as Fair and Unchanging. While progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes has occurred, including the reduction of toxic chemicals, the indicator assessments demonstrate that there are still significant challenges, including the impacts of nutrients and invasive species. The continued actions of many groups and individuals are contributing to the improvements in the Great Lakes.”

The assessment may be overly generous — but even if accurate, its “fair and unchanging” verdict translates at best to a C+. That is far from great effort on behalf of the Great Lakes. We can and must do better.

Back to the new Michigan report: It doesn’t attempt such a report card, but does deliver interesting news on drinking water rules for PFAS and other contaminants, high Great Lakes water levels, Asian carp and research on harmful algae blooms. As a “State of Great Lakes Programs” report, it offers some food for thought — but it doesn’t tell you scientifically where the health of the Lakes is headed.

One highlight of the EGLE report, however, is a discussion of the public trust doctrine, FLOW’s central organizing principle. The report observes:

“The basic premise behind much of the Great Lakes legal protection is the idea that surface water itself is not property of the state, but a public good. Over the years, a number of court cases have firmly established this legal principle, known as the ‘public trust doctrine.’ The public trust doctrine means protecting public water resources for the use and enjoyment of all. Under the public trust doctrine, the state acts as a trustee who is empowered to protect the water.”

We applaud EGLE’s recognition of its trustee role, and encourage Gov, Gretchen Whitmer and EGLE Director Liesl Clark to rely on the public trust doctrine to guide them as they consider their decisions on Line 5, Nestlé water withdrawals, and other weighty matters.

New Michigan Standards for Toxic PFAS in Drinking Water among Most Protective in the U.S.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

New, enforceable state drinking water standards to protect public health from seven toxic compounds will take effect early this month.

“Michigan is once again leading the way nationally in fighting PFAS contamination by setting our own science-based drinking water standard,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said.

Called for by Gov. Whitmer last year, the standards set maximum limits for the seven PFAS compounds. Known as “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly in the environment, PFAS have emerged as a national issue as more and more contamination sites are found. Two of the most serious hotspots in Michigan are sites associated with Wolverine Worldwide in Kent County and the former Wurthsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County.

“It is imperative for Michigan to promulgate the proposed rules as soon as practicable,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “Testing continues to turn up new sites of PFAS contamination in Michigan, many of them exposing citizens to substantial health risks. Federal rules are likely years away and may not provide the level of protection that the people of Michigan want and need for public health and the environment.”

The standards apply to approximately 2,700 public drinking water supplies across the state and will be enforced by the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). FLOW and other organizations have strongly supported the state standards in the absence of  binding, enforceable drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

PFAS have been used in thousands of applications globally, including firefighting foam, food packaging, non-stick coatings, stain and water repellents, and many other consumer products. PFAS compounds have been linked in scientific studies to:

  • Reducing a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
  • Increasing the chance of high blood pressure in pregnant women
  • Increasing the chance of thyroid disease
  • Increasing cholesterol levels
  • Changing immune response
  • Increasing the chance of cancer, especially kidney and testicular cancers.

“Governor Whitmer and EGLE deserve tremendous credit for taking this important first step in protecting Michigan residents from PFAS in their drinking water,” said Cyndi Roper, Michigan Senior Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Michigan is now regulating seven PFAS chemicals—which is more than any other state—and two of the standards are the nation’s most health protective. However, several of the new PFAS standards should have been more health protective based on the existing science.”

Roper added: “Further, even if we set standards for seven PFAS chemicals each year, it would take far too many generations to protect residents from the health impacts of these chemicals. Instead of playing regulatory whack-a-mole, Michigan should set a treatment technique that is most effective at cleaning up all known PFAS from drinking water.”

PFAS present a significant risk to human health. They break down slowly in the environment, can move quickly through the environment, and are associated with a wide array of harmful human health effects including cancer, immune system suppression, liver and kidney damage, and developmental and reproductive harm.

FLOW Calls for Strong, Protective Drinking Water Standards for “Forever Chemicals”

Meeting a January 31 deadline for public comment, FLOW urged state officials to adopt standards protecting the health of Michigan residents from PFAS chemicals detected in drinking water supplies serving 1.9 million residents.

FLOW also appreciates the 42 people who responded to a FLOW alert and submitted their own PFAS comments to the state.

Joining a broad coalition of environmental, public health and grassroots citizen organizations, FLOW told the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to adopt the proposed science-based standards. They would put Michigan among the leading states moving ahead to protect residents from these long-lasting toxic chemicals.

“It is imperative for Michigan to promulgate the proposed rules as soon as practicable,” FLOW wrote. “Testing continues to turn up new sites of PFAS contamination in Michigan, many of them exposing citizens to substantial health risks. Federal rules are likely years away and may not provide the level of protection that the people of Michigan want and need for public health and the environment. We applaud Governor Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) for your initiative to address the problem head-on.”

David Long, head of Environmental Solutions LLC, wrote last week in a blog post on FLOW’s website, “Studies show evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals persist in the body for a long time and can accumulate. In laboratory animals, researchers found that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.

“Consistently elevated cholesterol levels have been found in people with detectable levels of PFOA or PFOS. Lower infant birth weights, immune system effects, cancer (PFOA), and thyroid disruption (PFOS) have also been associated, albeit less frequently, with PFOA or PFOS.”

In addition to supporting the general outline of the standards, FLOW urged EGLE to:

  • Require a review of the rules in two years to take into account emerging science;
  • Require frequent monitoring of public water supplies to learn more about seasonal patterns and sources of PFAS;
  • Strengthen protection of infants and children.

Governor Whitmer has said she hopes the rules can be made final by summer.

Speak Up About PFAS, the “Forever Chemicals” in Michigan’s Drinking Water

Michigan residents have an opportunity until Friday, January 31, to speak up and defend our families and public drinking water from a group of chemicals known collectively as PFAS — also called “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment and are known to be in the water supply of at least 1.9 million Michiganders.

(To comment, email EGLE-PFAS-RuleMaking@Michigan.gov or mail your comment to: Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division / Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy / Attention: Suzann Ruch / PO Box 30817 / Lansing, Michigan 48909-8311)

What are the “Forever Chemicals”?

By Dave Long, Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC

PFOA and PFOS have been in the news lately, but what are they? PFOA and PFOS are fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. They have been used in the manufacturing of carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and for non-stick surfaces for cookware. These chemicals provide water repellency and resistance to grease and stains to fabric.  Consumers often know them as Scotchgard® and Teflon®. They are also used for firefighting at airports, chemical plants and for industrial fires.

These groups of man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been around since the 1940s, making our lives easier through non-stick surfaces, stain-resistant and water repellent products. Between 2000 and 2002, PFOS was voluntarily phased out of production in the U.S. by its primary manufacturers, 3M and DuPont. In 2006, eight major companies voluntarily agreed to phase out their global production of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals, although there are a limited number of current uses.

All that convenience comes at a price because PFOA does not break down and can accumulate over time in the environment and in your body. Recently PFOA and PFOS have been called the “Forever Chemicals.” Researchers have compelling evidence that exposure to some PFAS can cause adverse health effects.

In Michigan, PFAS chemicals have been found in many water supplies around Fort Grayling, in the city of Ann Arbor, and around several industrial sites. Currently the State of Michigan is working on setting a standard for drinking water to protect residents of the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued health advisory levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for two of these chemicals, PFOS and PFOA (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid, respectively).

Studies show evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals persist in the body for a long time and can accumulate. In laboratory animals, researchers found that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.

Consistently elevated cholesterol levels have been found in people with detectable levels of PFOA or PFOS. Lower infant birth weights, immune system effects, cancer (PFOA), and thyroid disruption (PFOS) have also been associated, albeit less frequently, with PFOA or PFOS.

The good news is there are filters designed to remove PFAS chemicals from water, either tap water or from municipal water supplies. Specific ion exchange resins have been developed and tested. Highly selective ion exchange resins for PFAS chemicals remove PFOS or PFOA below the EPA Health Advisory (HA) levels of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

Don’t Forget the Department of Natural Resources

An angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo courtesy Michigan DNR

By Tom Baird

Many Michiganders overlook a state agency critical to the environment.

When we talk about water issues in Michigan, we usually think of environmental protection, especially related to pollution and public health. We tend to forget that environmentalism was born out of the conservation movement of the early 20th century. Water issues remain central to the mission of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to this day.

Water was an integral aspect of the early conservation efforts of Michigan, often related to fish and game issues, as well as agriculture. The Department of Conservation was created in 1921, and the DNR took its place in 1965. Michigan’s early environmental laws were assigned to the DNR, but under Governor John Engler the Department was split, with environmental functions going to the Department of Environmental Quality (now Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, EGLE), allegedly because the environmental staff at the DNR was too zealous in its enforcement of the law.

The DNR still has an active water program, covering areas of major concern. Under the new administration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, several of these areas have seen renewed focus. And the DNR has a Senior Water Policy Advisor, Dr. Tammy Newcomb, who oversees many of these efforts.

PFAS pollution is an area generally within the purview of EGLE and the Department of Health and Human Services. The DNR has an important role in assessing contamination of water bodies and the fish and game that use them. Recently “do not eat” advisories have been posted due to PFAS contamination on Clark’s Marsh and the Au Sable River near Oscoda and the Huron River, for example. The DNR is critical in determining how PFAS compounds work through an ecosystem, and its half-life in various species of fish. Michigan appears to be the only place in the world that has tested white-tailed deer for PFAS contamination, resulting in a “do not eat” advisory for venison near Oscoda. Much of this work has been controversial, especially in areas where hunting and fishing are integral to the local economy, but the DNR has pushed hard when public health was at risk.

Water withdrawals remain another controversial area of concern where the DNR is involved. Applicants for high-volume ground water withdrawal authorizations use the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) to determine whether a withdrawal will have an adverse environmental effect. This is based on a computer model that assesses the effect on nearby streams. Those streams are classified, in part, by their temperature, flow, and the type of fish living in them. Cold-water trout streams, for example, are highly valued, so a relatively small adverse effect (compared to a sluggish warm water stream) might trigger a denial. The DNR is responsible for characterizing each stream’s type, and identifying the fish that live in it. Recent water withdrawals by Nestlé for bottled water and by Encana for fracking in northern Lower Michigan, and for agricultural irrigation in the southwestern part of the state, have caused significant controversies and litigation. The WWAT is under continuing review.

The Water Use Advisory Council is back in operation. Its purposes include the study of groundwater use in Michigan, and review of the scientific basis and implementation of the WWAT. As noted above, the DNR has an integral role to play, and Dr. Newcomb is the DNR’s delegate to the Water Use Advisory Council. Important work on the WWAT will continue in 2020.

Invasive species are a never-ending challenge for the Great Lakes. A major focus is Asian carp. Intensive negotiations are continuing with Illinois and federal authorities to block their migration into Lake Michigan. The goal is to engineer and finance the “Brandon Road Locks Project.” Brandon Road is a system connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. It could allow carp to invade the Great Lakes. The project involves measures such as an engineered channel and acoustic fish deterrent, air bubbles, electric currents, improved locks with flushing systems, specialized boat ramps, and other measures. Negotiations with Illinois are ongoing, with the DNR keeping up the pressure.

Climate change is a major emerging threat to Michigan’s fish, wildlife, and state forests. Warming temperatures and severe weather events threaten rivers, lakes, and streams, and their fisheries. The DNR Fisheries Division has been studying the issue for several years now. At some point, difficult decisions will need to be made regarding management of these resources in the face of these climate effects. For example, some streams will warm to the point that they will not be viable habitats for trout, causing management objectives to change. This will be controversial due to its effect on anglers and local recreational economies, and the DNR will play a central role in deciding how to manage these resources in the face of these changes.

The Department of Natural Resources remains integral to the study and management of Michigan’s water issues.  Monitoring its work is critical to assure healthy and productive habitats and sustainable water uses.

Tom Baird, who serves on FLOW’s board of directors, is past president of the Anglers of the Au Sable and chair of the group’s legal and governmental relations committees. Reach him at tbairdo@aol.com.

Breaking the Cycle of Great Lakes Ruin and Recovery

Above photo: Jane Corwin, US Commissioner/Chair of the International Joint Commission, speaks at a public hearing in Traverse City on July 24, 2019. Photo by Rick Kane.

By Liz Kirkwood

Editor’s note: FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood was recently appointed to be a member of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

My colleague and mentor, Dave Dempsey, knows almost everything there is to know about the Great Lakes.  He’s encyclopedic, you could say. He’s authored over 10 books, including a classic one entitled Ruin and Recovery (University of Michigan Press, 2001).  

It’s the cycle we here in the Great Lakes are all too familiar with.  

The book tells a story of Michigan’s environmental ruin that began to worsen in the early 1900s, followed by the recovery that began in the 1970s as the public clamored for a clean environment.

It is amazing to imagine that over one hundred years ago, as lax water pollution standards led to the fouling of the Great Lakes, the US and Canadian governments had the vision and foresight to craft an international treaty to address boundary water management and disputes. Known as the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, this pact established the International Joint Commission (IJC) to serve as the advisor to both governments in preventing, arbitrating, and navigating water conflicts.  Of the nine major water basins shared by the US and Canada, the Great Lakes is the largest and has global significance because it contains 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water.    

In 1972, with increasing international water pollution, the US and Canada entered into the seminal Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA).  The Agreement called for binational action by the governments to reduce phosphorus pollution and meet water quality goals. It also set up the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) to assist the IJC in watchdogging Great Lakes cleanup.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the IJC was considered the moral authority on Great Lakes issues, candidly assessing progress and problems. Thanks in part to the Water Quality Board, the commission made a lasting contribution to Great Lakes cleanup by defining 43 “areas of concern” (AOCs)—bays, harbors, and rivers with severe legacy contamination—that needed sustained commitment to be cleaned up. Over 30 years later, work continues on the AOCs, along with congressional funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

The work of the Water Quality Board continues, too. The 28-member board provides advice to the IJC for the benefit of the 40 million people who rely on the lakes for drinking water, sustenance, and way of life.  The IJC recently appointed me to serve on the Board.

The Board represents the crossroads of the Great Lakes, bringing together diverse viewpoints from tribal leaders like Frank Ettawageshik and water affordability advocates like Monica Lewis-Patrick. It is a pleasure to serve with them and to problem solve how we can bring the Great Lakes community together to respond to old and new problems in the Basin. This work depends on developing key priorities and scientific goals to measure progress, coordinating strong and committed implementation among federal, state, and provincial environmental agencies, building stronger and new partnerships and alliances across these lakes, lifting up silenced voices to ensure water justice for all, and educating and empowering all peoples about the vital importance of protecting the health of our common waters.

It’s been almost 50 years since the two nations entered into the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and during this time, we have watched rust-belt contaminated urban cores rebound and polluted ecosystems revived. But we also have witnessed a rollback of major federal environmental regulations and laws, the Flint lead crisis, Detroit water shutoffs, lack of investment and crumbling regional water infrastructure, lack of safe, affordable drinking water, wetland destruction, water privatization, legacy and emerging pollutants like PFAS, and unprecedented climate change impacts.

Our challenge in this new century, then, is to break the constant cycle of ruin and recovery, and replace it with sustained protection and prosperity. This is critical in the context of the climate crisis where we are testing the capacity of our ecosystems to rebound. Instead, we must imagine the future we want, where natural and human ecosystems can thrive and prosper together.

To do this, we must challenge traditional assumptions and ways of thinking. We must draw not only on science but also on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a relational process for indigenous peoples that is built through experience and relationships that are difficult to incorporate into non-indigenous information systems and decision frameworks. We must design and enact bold policies that acknowledge the interconnectedness of human health, economic prosperity, and ecosystems.

With public trust doctrine protection, we can steward our waters as a shared public resource from one generation to the next and ensure multigenerational equity. Healthy economies and communities depend on healthy ecosystems. It’s as simple as that. The future of the Great Lakes depends on a vision and plan based on a water-economy that embraces a new water ethic at its center.

I am honored to serve on the Water Quality Board for the IJC and it is my great hope that we can work together to develop recommendations thattranslate into meaningful bi-national actions designed to protect the long-term health of the Great Lakes.