Report: Michigan has most PFAS sites in the nation

By: - May 6, 2019 4:24 pm
Map of PFAS sites in Oscoda

Map of the PFAS plume in Oscoda from the former DEQ | Michael Gerstein

Michigan has the most sites in the country known to be contaminated with the group of toxic chemicals known as PFAS, according to a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.

The environmental and public health watchdog used federal reports from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Defense and Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute to create a contamination map of sites where PFAS, per- and polyfluorinated substances, have been found across the nation.

The group found 192 Michigan locations polluted with the substances, calling it a “severe” problem, but noted that the high number reflects the state’s aggressive testing and sampling program, led by the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART).

PFAS map
The Environmental Working Group’s map of PFAS sites in Michigan and surrounding areas | Environmental Working Group

Nationwide, EWG found 610 sites that could be polluted with PFAS chemicals, including 47 known locations in California and 43 in New Jersey. The total includes 117 U.S. military sites, many of which were contaminated by the Air Force’s use of firefighting foam that contains the chemicals.

“This study confirms what we already know: the PFAS crisis is impacting many communities across Michigan and the country,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) in a statement Monday.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer to address PFAS contamination — which can have devastating health impacts. That’s why I’m continuing to work on efforts in the Senate to ensure our drinking water is safe, prevent exposure to contamination, reduce harm to human health and expedite clean-up and assistance for affected communities.”

Although the armed forces have largely moved away from that foam, years of its use have left communities such as Oscoda reeling from high levels of PFAS pollution, as the Michigan Advance reported. Last month, Peters and Air Force Assistant Secretary John Henderson talked with Oscoda residents about their lingering concerns about PFAS.

EWG estimated that roughly 19 million Americans may have come into contact with drinking water containing the substances, although the group notes that figure “is imprecise, since public water systems don’t know how many people live or work at the addresses they serve.”

Water inspection in Michigan
Environmental contractors sample the groundwater from former fire training area #2 to check for PFAS at former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan | Breanne Humphreys, Air Force

A separate 2018 EWG analysis of EPA test data found that more than 1,500 drinking water systems serving 110 million U.S. residents could contain PFAS pollution.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has utterly failed to address PFAS with the seriousness this crisis demands, leaving local communities and states to grapple with a complex problem rooted in the failure of the federal chemical regulatory system,” said EWG President Ken Cook in a statement.

“EPA must move swiftly to set a truly health-protective legal limit for all PFAS chemicals, requiring utilities to clean up contaminated water supplies.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) is an original co-sponsor of legislation that would give the EPA a firm deadline to adopt an enforceable drinking water limit — a process that critics say has already dragged on for too long.

State testing has indicated fewer contaminated sites in Michigan than the EWG found.

Rep. Dan Kildee and House Democrats
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) speaks at a press conference featuring House Democrats at the U.S. Capitol April 20, 2016, in Washington, DC | Win McNamee, Getty Images

MPART confirmed 49 contaminated locations and is analyzing four others, according to Scott Dean, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

“The only reason Michigan shows a large number of PFAS sites is because we are one of the few states

that is actively looking for the contamination,” Dean said in an email to the Advance.  

“Michigan is well ahead of virtually every state in the country with the possible exception of the states that are home to the chemical companies that make PFAS,” he continued. “Michigan is different than states like Minnesota and New Jersey because we never had PFAS manufacturers like [Minnesota’s] 3M here.”

“We were just users of their products, and now we’re tracking down where and how these PFAS compounds were used by the military, airports, tanneries, metal platers and others in our state.”

Dean said Michigan also is “unique” because state officials “have a much better handle on the impact of PFAS on drinking water.”

Investigators checking for PFAS
Environmental contractors sample the groundwater from former fire training area #2 to check for PFAS at former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan | Breanne Humphreys, Air Force

Michigan is the first state in the country to test the drinking water for PFAS contamination at every community, school and day care facility, according to Dean, who noted that means about “75 percent of the state’s drinking water” has been sampled.

Those tests have indicated that some level of PFAS contamination may exist in roughly 1.5 million Michigan residents’ drinking water, as MLive reported last year. But 90 percent of all tested water supplies “have no detectable levels of PFAS,” Dean continued.

Both Robinson Elementary School near Grand Haven and the city of Parchment near Kalamazoo, however, were found to have drinking water PFAS levels higher than the EPA’s current advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. One part per trillion is equivalent to about one drop in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Both the city and school have been switched to different water supplies, as many property owners with private wells near Oscoda also continue to use filtration systems due to PFAS contamination.

In April, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration set a 2020 deadline to establish a state drinking water limit for PFAS chemicals.

“No other state has taken such an in-depth, interagency approach to identify, understand and address the challenge of PFAS contamination,” Dean said. “While most states are taking a wait-and-see approach and the federal government moves slowly. Here in Michigan, we’re committed to working together to root out this contaminant, protect at-risk populations, and drive down exposure levels. No state is moving faster along so many fronts.”

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.