Nessel sues Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority over PFAS contamination

By: - September 11, 2023 3:09 pm

Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party’s Election Day watch party in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

After what Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel called “repeated warnings and demands for action” from the state, Nessel announced Monday she is suing the Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority over its alleged failure to address the airport’s role in contaminating nearby drinking water with what are known as “forever chemicals.”

Nessel filed a lawsuit Monday in the Kent County 17th Judicial Circuit Court against the airport authority, which is located about 13 miles southeast of Grand Rapids in Cascade Township. In the lawsuit, the Democratic attorney general said the airport authority has repeatedly failed to address the airport’s “previous and known releases” of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have been discovered in residential drinking water wells in the neighboring Cascade Charter Township and in streams and other groundwater close to the airport. 

Nessel’s office said the lawsuit seeks “injunctive and declaratory relief, past and future remediation and monitoring costs, and damages for the loss and destruction of natural resources.”

Gerald R. Ford International Airport | Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority photo

“The airport authority has had ample opportunity, over several years now, to step up and do the right thing,” Nessel said in a prepared statement issued on Monday. “But as they’ve shown a refusal to accept responsibility for their actions or meaningfully attempt to clean up the messes they have made, we must compel them to act responsibly. Under Michigan law, if you caused the contamination, you must remediate it. We will continue to pursue our claims against the authority until a satisfactory result is reached that protects the public and the environment.” 

The airport authority did not respond to a request for comment.

PFAS, frequently referred to as “forever chemicals,” are man-made substances that are often byproducts of manufacturing and break down very slowly over time. Research has shown that exposure to PFAS, especially through drinking water, can cause a wide range of negative health effects, including liver damage, fertility issues, thyroid disease, and cancer.

From the 1960s through the mid-1990s, a firefighting foam that contained PFAS was used during firefighting training activities at the airport, according to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.

The use of that foam then contaminated the nearby groundwater and drinking water with PFAS, Nessel said. 

“Every resident across the state deserves clean air, safe water, and a healthy community, including being protected against toxic contaminants like PFAS,” Phil Roos, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), said in a prepared statement. “We believe the Gerald Ford International Airport Authority used PFAS-containing foam for decades. These PFAS compounds have been detected in excess of the state’s standards both on and off the airport property and where they are negatively impacting the nearby drinking water wells and natural resources.”

The airport authority had repeated chances to address the state’s concerns regarding PFAS contamination emanating from the airport, Nessel said. EGLE “sent numerous compliance communications to the airport authority demanding it provide information on its previous uses of” the firefighting foam, Nessel’s office said in a prepared statement.

In September 2020, for example, EGLE sent the airport authority a violation notice demanding that it create and implement a plan to investigate “the nature and extent of PFAS contamination from the airport’s historical use of” the firefighting foam and “provide notices of migration of hazardous substances to the residents of neighboring Cascade Charter Township,” Nessel’s office said in Monday’s statement. The airport authority did not comply and “denied any liability,” according to Nessel’s press release.

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In March 2021, EGLE sent the authority a final enforcement notice demanding that it create and implement a PFAS plan, and Nessel’s press release said the airport authority and the attorney general’s office “spent many months attempting to negotiate an agreement protective of the public health, safety and welfare of our Michigan residents and the environment.

“The Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority refuses to take appropriate and necessary action and continues to deny responsibility,” Nessel’s office said in the press release.

Roos said state officials are hopeful that “after two years of EGLE working towards a voluntary settlement to resolve this matter, this civil action will motivate the airport to address the PFAS contamination.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.