Community leaders launch coalition to fight PFAS contamination

By: - July 16, 2021 5:02 am

Outside Wurtsmith Air Force base museum | Michael Gerstein

The Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, a group of community members impacted by the toxic chemical PFAS, are unifying to promote action on PFAS contamination. 

The Thursday press conference was led by community members who provided government officials and polluters with best practices to deal with PFAS. The community leaders also presented the coalition’s vision to secure action on PFAS contamination in the Great Lakes region. 

Cathy Wusterbarth, co-leader of Need Our Water, spoke about her experience dealing with some of the highest concentrations of PFAS brought by a former Air Force base in Oscoda.

“In 2016, it felt like a PFAS bomb was dropped by our own military and we were in shock,” Wusterbarth said. “We then desperately looked around to others for help. We saw how some people and organizations took swift action… and others like our polluter, the U.S. air force and the regulator, the state of Michigan, sat on their hands unable or unwilling to take action.” 

PFAS has been found in over 11,000 sites and in the drinking water of almost 2 million residents across Michigan. Roughly 46 sites in Michigan have also been found to have exceeded the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 parts-per-trillion. 

Scientists have found a probable link between PFAS substances and serious health problems such as high cholesterol, thyroid disease and testicular and kidney cancer.

The hazardous chemical is commonly found in drinking water, soil and air. PFAS is also routinely used in nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing and used to be found in fire-fighting foam.

The formation of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network also comes as U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) are bringing the PFAS Action Act of 2021 to a floor vote next week, as the Advance reported Thursday. 

Sandy Wynn-Stelt, co-chair of Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, said that community leadership is key. 

“Community members, citizens, have much more power and influence than we give ourselves credit for,” Wynn Stelt said. “We have the ability to change policy and I learned that by standing together, with other community members and being smart, and being persistent, we truly can get some policy changed.” 

Salah Ali, a community leader from Dearborn, said in a press release following the press conference that he wants to utilize his experience in the community holding polluters like AK Steel accountable to continue to hold groups accountable with the help of the newly formed coalition.  

“As PFAS has impacted my community in Dearborn, we must find solutions to protect the health of our community and our water,” Ali said. “I’m joining the PFAS Action Network to bring my perspective and work together to clean up this toxic contamination.”

The group also said that it intends to focus its advocacy efforts on both state and federal authorities. The group has not released any exact policy proposals, but says it plans to concentrate policy efforts on three main areas: ensuring PFAS is regulated as a class and not a one-off basis, removing PFAS from commerce except for in products that its use is essential, and to increase education efforts in both communities and medical practices. 

The bill that is expected to be voted on in the U.S. House next week aims to reduce Americans’ exposure to PFAS in air, water and consumer products. It will also classify PFAS into two types, as either perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA or perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, both of which are dangerous substances. 

The Environmental Protection Agency currently regulates PFOA and PFOS, even though there are anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000 chemicals. The EPA currently has no regulations restricting companies from using the product commercially, but the new bill would require the agency to set standards for nine industries, including organic chemicals, plastics and synthetic fibers and electrical and electrical components. 

The bill would also direct the EPA to create water quality criteria for PFAS under the Clean Water Act within two years in order to stop companies and manufacturers from dumping PFAS into local water sources. 

The bill would outline federal cleanup standards, likely commencing clean up initiatives on military bases across the country. Since the Department of Defense does not have to follow state PFAS standards, the government agency has previously refrained from PFAS clean up initiatives on federal sites. 

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Julia Forrest
Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a contributor to the Michigan Advance. She has been covering Michigan and national politics for two years at the Michigan Daily and OpenSecrets. She studies public policy at the University of Michigan.