As the scope of PFAS contamination continues to grow nationwide, lawmakers in other states increasingly are taking note of how the situation is being handled in Michigan.
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, recruited about 30 members of Congress “from virtually every part of the county” to join a bipartisan “PFAS taskforce” he formed with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania.
“It’s rare that a few days go by and there is not some member of Congress coming up to me, because they know that I’ve been working on this, saying that they’ve discovered PFAS in their home district at some military or some commercial site,” Kildee said.
Although the reputation of the nation’s capital is infamously partisan, Kildee said when public health is at risk, the “angst and in-fighting kind of melts away.”
“It ought to be reassuring to people — in an environment that’s pretty caustic — that when public health is at risk, Democrats and Republicans can come together and find common ground,” Kildee said.
Finding common ground also led lawmakers to address Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates that until late last year forced government and commercial airports to use firefighting foams that contained PFAS, a known contaminant with nearly unbreakable chemical bonds that spreads quickly in groundwater.
Michigan’s congressional leaders championed a provision in the 2018 reauthorization of the FAA to allow airports to end their use of the firefighting foam. The legislation does not prevent airports from applying products with PFAS or other fluorinated compounds if they still wish to use them, but the facilities are no longer required to have them on hand.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich, says that’s a start, but acknowledges that more actions are needed to rein in use of the emerging contaminant to decrease exposure to the chemical. Michigan remains home to an untold number of old contamination sites that have been tainting groundwater for decades, he said.
Michigan’s handling of past chemical contamination incidents offers perspective on what it’s going to take to clean up the state’s PFAS problems. Expect it to take decades, billions of dollars and some awkward dances of cooperation.
Reporting on PFAS to date has focused mostly on environmental concerns and pointing blame at the companies and organizations that have discharged the emerging contaminant into water supplies.
MiBiz's three-part series will go beyond the heated rhetoric to offer a dose of reality about how to handle the complex challenges stemming from the equally complex chemical.
“There’s no question we have to clean up the sites that exist,” said Peters, who is ranking member of the Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I’ve been focused on all of them, but the ones that have received particular attention are those involving the federal government.”
One of the first sites in Michigan to document PFAS contamination was the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) became aware of the contamination in March 2010 when sampling a former fire training area on the base.
The testing identified plumes measuring at least eight square miles, along with six sites near the base, according to the MDEQ. The agency in 2016 issued an advisory against drinking the groundwater in the area, and the local health department provided filters or in-home water coolers to more than 200 homes. There is a standing “Do Not Eat” advisory for deer taken within five miles of Clark’s Marsh, which is adjacent to the base.
Veterans who lived on the base over a nearly 20-year period were also “likely impacted,” according to the MDEQ.
Funding a $10 million national health study on the effects of PFAS on veterans, their families, and communities near military bases was included in the 2018 Defense Department appropriation. The study will be conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will take five years to complete.
“It’s really important that we get a much fuller understanding of the health implication of PFAS exposure,” Kildee said. “We know it’s bad … but the science is evolving.”
Kildee has introduced legislation with Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, to authorize the U.S. Geological Survey to search for PFAS chemicals in water, soil, and air around the country.
“One of the problems we have is that we don’t know the full extent of PFAS contamination,” Kildee said.
In fact, there isn’t even a nationwide consensus on what level of exposure or contamination is considered dangerous, Kildee said. Federal law also lacks restrictions or standards for the amount of PFAS allowed in drinking water.
“The federal government is largely responsible for the known PFAS contamination that’s already out there, and that’s all through the Defense Department sites that use firefighting foam,” he said. “It would be smart for us to have a consistent standard that is based on science.”
On that front, Peters blasted a recently proposed “action plan” from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he said fails to establish an enforceable standard. He has since introduced legislation to force the EPA within a year to designate PFAS as hazardous under the Superfund law, thereby making sites with PFAS eligible for federal cleanup funds and requiring private polluters to pay for remediation.
Kildee said that designation is a good starting point for developing an action plan.
“By designating PFAS as a hazardous substance, we can use that process to go after the polluter with an enforcement action that would stop them from using the substance and force them to pay for the cleanup of the contamination that they caused and presumably profited from,” he said.
Kildee is hoping heightened attention from other parts of the country will demonstrate that “sitting around and being afraid doesn’t do anybody any good.” He ultimately wants to speed up the federal response, leading to realistic solutions for citizens and the environment.
“If there is any kind of lesson from all of this that we want people from other parts of the country to take note of, it’s that we have to act. This isn’t going to go away by itself and it doesn’t get better if we ignore it,” he said. “We have to do something, and the sooner the better.”