PFAS crisis demands federal, state action

Michigan is at the center of an environmental disaster — and strong leadership is desperately needed. Now.

More than a dozen communities across the state are already affected by PFAS as the chemicals contaminate drinking water, creating a real public health threat.

As a series of MLive stories this week showed, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known collectively as PFAS have worked their way into Michigan’s lakes, rivers and groundwater.

Sadly, high-level state officials largely ignored a detailed report — drafted six years ago — from one of their own experts about the problem. This from Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration that so badly botched the Flint water crisis.

To be sure, the administration is now making progress with the creation of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), which has been held up as a national model in responding to the contamination problem.

But much more needs to be done at both the state and federal levels.

To protect the public, the EPA needs to quicken the process for setting much-needed maximum contamination levels for not just PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), but others as well. We need a broad-based health-protective regulatory structure for PFAS as a class of hazardous chemicals — not individual compounds, since there are thousands of them and there is no practical way to regulate them individually.

Without actual limits on the concentration of PFAS allowed in groundwater, drinking water and soil, and the hammer of a hazardous substance designation, the Department of Defense can’t be forced to clean up contamination or companies and other polluters held liable. These actions are years overdue.

The Department of Defense needs to move with a far greater sense of urgency to clean up contamination in communities, such as Oscoda, that it polluted. Use of PFAS in firefighting foam at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base has contaminated the groundwater and surface water in Oscoda and Lake Huron.

Making residents and communities exposed to toxic chemicals wait extended periods of time for remediation is troubling and unacceptable. The defense department’s foot-dragging has allowed the problem to fester, impacting more natural resources.

Well behind schedule, a granulated activated carbon filter system for PFAS should be ready by August to limit PFAS flowing into Van Etten Creek. The defense department needs to make a firm commitment to another treatment system and step up the pace in Oscoda to stop high volumes of contamination seeping every day into Lake Huron, where municipal drinking water systems nearby are pulling in PFAS chemicals.

Since 2016, the EPA health advisory level for PFOS and PFOA has been 70 parts-per-trillion. But this standard, deemed to be significantly too high — is unenforceable. The defense department will not supply long-term safe water to homes contaminated by PFAS unless wells test above 70-ppt.

There is growing evidence that low levels of PFAS exposure are more harmful than initially thought. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the health effects of PFAS said the provisional risk level is 11 parts per trillion for PFOA and 7 ppt for PFOS.

Residents worried about their health and property are rightly critical of the federal agencies’ slow and limited response to the chemicals.

Michigan can’t wait on the EPA to protect its citizens. Given the EPA’s slowness, stricter state health advisory levels should be considered.

With 30 sites in 15 communities across the state contaminated — a number that is expected to grow as more PFAS pollution is discovered — lawmakers should have plenty of motivation to protect their constituents from these chemicals that are linked to thyroid and liver disease and an increased risk for certain cancer, in addition to other illnesses.

The creation of MPART was a wise move. Now lawmakers must take swift steps to make sure the team has the support and resources to protect people’s water and educate them on the issue.

The fallout from Michigan’s failure to respond to the Flint water crisis immediately should be a glaring reminder for the governor, legislature and the next administration about the human and political costs of not leading in a crisis.

— MLive Media Group

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