The path to cleaning up man-made chemical contamination is expensive, complex and can take generations. That’s according to Richard Rediske, senior program manager and professor of environmental chemistry at Grand Valley State University’s Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute. Rediske, an expert on PFAS, has worked with the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Remediation, the group that for years has been chronicling contamination at the former Wolverine World Wide Inc. tannery site in Rockford. He also received the West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s 2018 CR Evenson Award, which recognizes an individual’s contribution to environmental protection. Rediske spoke with MiBiz about previous environmental cleanups and practical solutions to PFAS contamination.
What can environmental cleanups of the past teach us about dealing with PFAS?
The traditional ways of cleaning up soil and groundwater are very expensive. The two common methods for treating contaminants are digging them out and disposing of them in a landfill, and the other method is what we call pump-and-treat for groundwater.
How does pump-and-treat work?
Essentially, groundwater is moving through a site in a certain direction that you determine with a hydrogeological study. Then, install wells and pump the water to keep it away from the (contaminated) site and then treat the water with activated carbon or other materials. That can take forever.
How long are we talking?
A good example is Hooker (Chemical Corp.)/Occidental (Chemical Corp.) site up in Montague. They have a pump-and-treat system and they’re going to be running that for several generations — hundreds of years, probably.
Would the pump-and-treat method work for cleaning up PFAS?
(PFAS) is not as toxic as the materials that were used up in Whitehall or in Montague, but it is very persistent. PFAS travels faster and has a greater ability to disperse in the environment than materials up there. With something that moves as aggressively as PFAS compounds, the plumes are miles long — like what we have up in Rockford. The challenge is that we can block the further spread at the disposal site or the tannery site, but when it’s already spread out for miles, you’ve essentially damaged the environment.
Can new techniques or technologies help undo the damage?
Locally, Michigan State (University) is working on an electrochemical method. The problem we have with PFAS compounds is that the carbon and fluorine bond is really stable. We rely on bacteria a lot to treat municipal wastewater and there’s not much that bacteria can do (about PFAS). The only way to break the bond is to apply a lot of electricity — we have to electrochemically try and break that bond. When you’re treating 100 gallons and you have some big electrodes, it’s easy to do that. When you’re treating a million gallons a day, it’s just not practical to do that.
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.
If the environmental cleanup can take generations, how can you limit exposure in the meantime?
The only option that people have now is to put in public water. Nobody would even think of putting their own well down (below) the city of Grand Rapids because the groundwater is probably contaminated from industries and everything else. We’ve decided to have public water available to allow us to settle in cities like that. Now, we’re going to have to look at running public water out in rural areas that we never thought we’d have to serve. Everybody thought there was beautiful groundwater and very abundant groundwater in these areas of Michigan, but we can’t use that resource anymore because it’s contaminated.
What are the next steps to extend the public water system?
It takes money, and that’s the problem they’re having in Plainfield Township. They have water lines available in the area that they are looking at extending, but it’s millions of dollars to put in the piping and the hookups and everything. You have to do the engineering studies and things like that to figure out the best way to distribute it.
What are the options to pay for it?
Maybe there’ll be some form of federal grants that are available. Maybe there will be cost recovery with legal suits to get the money from the responsible party. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but there’s going to be some combination of federal grants and state grants that are applied to affected communities or legal recourse for damages.
Historically, how much does liability play a part in who pays for the solutions?
In cases with major liability, they’ve settled long before the work was done. The companies are bankrupt — the settlements bankrupted the company. Then after studying it more and as technology changes, the problem is much larger than we thought. A lot of (the funds) then come from the public. The federal government uses Superfund money to clean things up. … It’s a complicated process. Public money is scarce because of other priorities like education and things like that. It has to be part of all the priorities that are going on in the community.
Have we learned from the past? Are we responding better to chemical contaminants like PFAS?
Yes and no. We have the ability to test every water supply in the state within a year and decide which sites are affected. We’ve got much more capability than we had. It’s just we seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.
What do you mean by that?
It’s really because we like very durable products. We like things that are stable and tough. Nature doesn’t do that. We don’t have something like polyethylene in nature. Nature uses four or five different types of polymers and we use hundreds of them. There are a whole bunch of different examples of how we can do things better, and there are a lot of people that are working on those kinds of designs.
Even with a new focus on prevention, we’ll still keep finding PFAS or other new emerging contaminants and have to deal with the consequences of those chemicals that were dispersed a generation or more ago. Will West Michigan rise to the challenge?
We’re a community and it’s a challenge to the community. We have a medical school and we have universities. I think if we pull all of our community resources together, we can address this challenge. It can’t be done by government alone. With community resources, we were able to take all the combined sewer overflows out of the Grand River over 10 years. Now people go to the Grand River or go to downtown Grand Rapids to walk along the Grand River. We can make progress over many years if we stay focused on it. I’m optimistic.
Interview conducted and condensed by Jessica Young.