The potentially health-harming chemical compound that shut down the drinking water supply in two West Michigan communities last Thursday may contaminate more than 11,300 locations statewide, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The DEQ provided the observation on the contaminants as part of a presentation to the Michigan Environmental Compliance Conference in Lansing last month, displaying a series of maps with various facilities that could have PFAS contamination: 1,487 fire stations across the Upper and Lower Peninsulas; 27 municipal airports; 519 waste-water treatment plants, and more. All told, more than 11,300 sites were listed in the presentation maps.
“The number is staggering,” said Anthony Spaniola, a Troy attorney whose family has owned frontage on Van Etten Lake in Oscoda for years. There, PFAS contamination emanating from firefighting foam used at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base decades ago has excessive levels of the chemicals in groundwater and surface foam on the lake.
PFAS, once commonly used in firefighting foam, nonstick surfaces, stain guards and other commercial and industrial applications, is an emerging contaminant of concern, as it persists for long periods in the environment and can be harmful to human health. According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, studies have shown certain PFAS may affect the growth, learning and behavior of infants and children; lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant; interfere with the body’s natural hormones; increase cholesterol levels; affect the immune system, and increase cancer risks. Laboratory animals exposed to high doses of one or more PFAS compounds have shown changes in liver, thyroid and pancreatic function.
The number of potential sites is high because of widespread use of PFAS for such a long time, said Scott Dean, spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder’s Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, or MPART, a multi-departmental entity founded late last year to begin to assess and address the burgeoning discovery of the contaminants.
“Those maps were really designed to be very, very conservative — just to identify worthwhile places to look and consider,” he said.
In an example of just how common and long-lasting PFAS contamination can be, the DEQ in May revisited the site of a massive, 1995 tire fire that lasted for weeks at Carl’s Retreading, a now-defunct scrap tire collection and recycling site in Grand Traverse County’s Blair Township. Firefighters had used fire suppressing foam that contained PFAS as they combated the blaze.
The DEQ in May tested the groundwater at the historic fire site, and found two PFAS compounds at levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion. One compound was at almost four times the regulatory limit at nearly 40 feet below the ground surface.
In the Kalamazoo County community of Parchment, local health officials issued a do-not-drink order for muncipal water late Thursday, after DEQ testing results showed PFAS levels in the community’s municipal water supply at 1,410 parts per trillion, about 20 times the EPA health advisory level.
Bottled water was offered to the 3,100 water system users affected by the order in Parchment and adjacent Cooper Township. Officials Friday planned to switch residents to the city of Kalamazoo’s water, as they flushed the Parchment water system until PFAS levels were below regulatory limits. Investigators are still attempting to determine the cause of the high contamination levels.
The DEQ last year uncovered a large area of Kent County north of Grand Rapids tainted with high levels of PFAS from a longtime Wolverine Worldwide shoe and leather products operation there.
Snyder earlier this month asked state Attorney General Bill Schuette to begin legal proceedings against 3M, the Minnesota manufacturer of products such as Scotchgard and firefighting foam that contained PFAS compounds. The DEQ in March announced it would inspect 1,300 municipal water systems statewide for the contaminants.
Michigan isn’t more susceptible to PFAS contamination than other locations in the U.S., Dean noted.
“Michigan is one of the leading, if not the leading, states in attacking this issue,” he said. “The reason we are leading is we are looking. We are one of only a handful of states that are aggressively addressing this emerging contaminant.”
But Snyder came under fire after public records emerged showing top DEQ officials were alerted to the potential widespread PFAS problem in Michigan by a staff member’s report in August 2012. Though that report urged multi-agency, statewide action, such action wasn’t taken on PFAS until more than five years later.
More needs to be done now, said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
“The fact that PFAS pollution has grown in just the last month from 32 publicly released sites to now maybe 11,000 or more highlights the dire need for more transparency from our government, and should sound the alarm bells for our leaders to take bold action immediately,” she said.
“Michigan must enact an enforceable drinking water standard, and our state lawmakers should return to Lansing from summer break and conduct a full investigation into this ‘forever chemical’ crisis in our water, and how an MDEQ report exposing it six years ago was ignored, kept from the public and swept under the rug.”