West Michigan businesses are adapting their strategies to help address the unexpected rise of PFAS contamination as an issue, albeit mostly in measured steps as the quickly changing scenario continues to play out.
But regardless of how they are reacting to doing business in the era of intense public scrutiny around PFAS, companies involved in everything from analytical testing to litigation expect the issue to remain front and center for the foreseeable future.
How Holland-based Trident Labs Inc. responded to the PFAS problem is a textbook case in Business 101: The firm recognized an emerging need and found a way to satisfy the market with a faster and cheaper service.
“Even though I work in Holland, I live in Rockford, and I was seeing it (PFAS contamination) really blow up around me,” said Lyle Rawlings, technical supervisor of the lab established in 2014 to perform toxicology testing of human urine and oral fluid for hospitals and physicians nationwide.
It was just coming to light that sections of Rockford and nearby areas in northern Kent County were contaminated with PFAS — short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — and wells providing drinking water to homes in the area also were testing positive for the chemical. Further investigation identified the source of the contamination as tannery processing wastes from Rockford-based footwear and apparel maker Wolverine World Wide Inc. (NYSE: WWW).
“I saw news reports of complaints people had with the cost and turnaround time of PFAS testing in water — upwards of $1,000 per test and timelines of four to six weeks if not longer to get results back,” Rawlings said. “I knew from being in the industry that it could be done much faster — our turnaround times for toxicology testing is 48 hours — and cheaper. Having the equipment and having the people who know how to use it, we knew that we could implement this quickly, and do it cheaper and faster than anybody else.”
Trident Labs charges $250 to test residential drinking water using a standard EPA method that identifies parts per trillion concentrations of PFOA, PFOS and 12 other PFAS compounds. Homeowners receive a water sampling kit with instructions and a self-addressed shipping label, take the sample and return it to the Holland lab for $22 shipping both ways. A sample submitted by an industrial customer costs about $50 more because the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality requires testing for an additional 10 PFAS compounds.
The turnaround time for residential samples is five days; industrial samples take 10 days.
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.
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MiBiz's three-part series went beyond the heated rhetoric to offer a dose of reality about how to handle the complex challenges stemming from the equally complex chemical.
“Water is a heck of a lot easier to test than human fluid — just from an interference standpoint,” Rawlings said. “So actually, the move to PFAS testing was really easy for us.”
Trident Labs has been able to handle the additional PFAS testing work without adding to its current staff of 20 non-sales employees or purchasing new equipment, Rawlings said. The bulk of its operations remain focused on toxicology testing on a national basis, while only about 10 percent of its business is related to PFAS testing, largely for clients in Michigan.
PFAS testing may pick up as Trident Labs begins to service universities conducting scientific studies.
“We’re working with a variety of universities to do research, not only to detect PFAS but also having a better understanding of the effects of PFAS,” Rawlings said. “Our most active partner is Grand Valley State University and its institute (Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute) in Muskegon. This summer, we hope to help them launch an investigation into PFAS in fish.”
Ensuring water supplies
Other companies involved in providing drinking water to homes, schools and businesses also have responded to new market demands.
During the past two years, Kalamazoo-based Gordon Water Systems Inc. has installed more than 150 residential water treatment systems in northern Kent County and other areas specifically to remove PFAS from drinking water, not including its work with restaurants, industrial facilities and schools around the chemical, said Adam Heroux, the company’s marketing communications specialist.
It also has helped with the testing of more than 700 private wells in PFAS hot spots such as near the Gerald R. Ford International Airport and around Parchment, Richland and Schoolcraft in Southwest Michigan. The company also provides bottled water delivery service.
But even with the additional business, Gordon Water Systems doesn’t anticipate boosting its staff of about 50 people at its Kalamazoo headquarters and offices in Grand Rapids, Rockford and Portage, Heroux said.
When word of the PFAS contamination problem hit Rockford about two years ago, well driller Craig Merlington expected his business to start booming when homeowners in the affected areas ordered replacement wells to obtain clean water.
“Lo and behold, it was just the opposite,” said Merlington, president of North Kent Well & Pump Inc., a Cedar Springs-based company that serves homes, businesses and farms in West Michigan. “Actually, our business has probably declined a bit. In Kent County, there’s a moratorium on drilling wells for homes located in PFAS areas.”
While the company that employs nine people can’t drill residential water wells in proven PFAS contaminated areas in northern Kent County, Merlington said his company is seeing opportunities elsewhere.
“We are drilling a replacement well right now for Tri County Middle School in Howard City to improve the water quality,” he said. MDEQ samples of the school’s existing well last August showed 62 parts per trillion (ppt) for two types of PFAS, slightly below the federal recommendations of 70 ppt.
At the same time, services from companies involved in drilling wells for environmental testing are in great demand, as government agencies and corporations seek to define the limits of groundwater contamination.
With headquarters in Grand Rapids and an office in Rockford, Mateco Drilling Co. has provided geotechnical and environmental drilling services since 1974, including testing wells for Superfund sites in Michigan and for PFAS at Truax Field National Guard Base in Madison, Wis.
Company officials did not respond to inquiries about its growth, but executives involved in the PFAS issue locally say Mateco is among the firms benefiting from the hundreds of testing wells that have been drilled in West Michigan to identify where PFAS contamination lies.
Offering new testing
While companies like Trident Labs and Gordon Water Systems have handled PFAS-related work with their existing teams, two environmental engineering consultants and a legal firm said they are selectively beefing up their staffs to handle resolution of the complex issues of PFAS. They also said the invaluable experience they gain from dealing with PFAS in West Michigan may help them secure work in other Michigan communities or out of state.
“We’ve really seen the PFAS problem come to the forefront in the last two years,” said Mike Colvin, senior vice president and principal for the environmental division of Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber Inc. (FTCH) in Grand Rapids. “Prior to that time, we had a pretty cursory knowledge of these chemicals. It really was triggered here when the Wolverine House Street landfill came to light.”
Wolverine started disposing tannery waste at 1855 House St. NE in Plainfield Charter Township before 1940, then purchased and operated the property as a licensed disposal facility in the 1960s, according to the MDEQ. Other areas allegedly tainted with Wolverine’s PFAS waste include suspected disposal sites in the area of Wolven Avenue and Jewell Avenue north of 10 Mile Road in Algoma Township, and several citizen-reported unregulated dump sites across three townships in northern Kent County.
FTCH collected, analyzed and documented PFAS contamination at parts of the House Street landfill, as well as checked water samples at the Art Van Sports Complex near Rockford. The company also tested municipal drinking water supplies for the city of Clare, village of Baldwin and the Gratiot Area Water Authority.
The firm recently hired environmental engineer Fernanda Wilson to make up a team of four professionals specifically designated as its PFAS technical team, Colvin said. Based in Grand Rapids, FTCH employs more than 400 staff members at its headquarters and 10 regional offices in Michigan and Ohio. It is among the largest Michigan-based professional consulting firms in the fields of engineering, environmental sciences, architecture and construction management.
Colvin said the issue of PFAS contamination is affecting the firm’s clients in various industries and sectors, including electroplating, municipal drinking water supplies and wastewater treatment, airports and landfills. Often the work is built upon consulting that FTCH already has been providing. For example, FTCH for years has provided engineering services to Master Finish Co. in Grand Rapids regarding treatment and discharges from its electroplating operations, and now the consulting includes PFAS. (Editor’s note: For more on PFAS in the electroplating industry, see “Playing Catch-up,” the second part of this Deep Dive series that ran in the April 1 edition.)
Wilson said one new service FTCH is providing to its clients is the assessment of potential PFAS sources and advice on alternative chemicals and processes to eliminate or reduce the risk of PFAS contamination entering the environment.
“So, to reduce the source of contamination in manufacturing industries, we can check all the chemicals that they use in their processes and consider alternatives that are effective replacements,” she said.
Filling a gap
Grand Rapids-based Fleis & VandenBrink Engineering Inc. also is helping its existing client base with PFAS contamination in drinking water and wastewater treatment, said Brian Rice, principal at the firm who manages the environmental services group. In addition to being a professional consulting firm in the fields of civil engineering, architecture and water resource management, Fleis & VandenBrink also operates municipal water plants in Michigan and Indiana through a subsidiary.
“That’s how I first became aware of PFAS as an issue,” Rice said. “We operate the water treatment plant of the Huron Shore Regional Utility Authority, on the east side of the state near the (former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda) that has PFAS contamination.”
The authority pipes water from Lake Huron to several municipal water customers in Iosco County. Tests conducted by the MDEQ in November on samples of the authority’s water showed non-detect levels of PFOS and PFOA, but PFOS and PFOA were detected in samples taken in 2016.
“I personally got started by helping out initially with testing in the Rockford area,” Rice said. “Homeowners that were falling through the cracks between the sampling that Wolverine was doing and what the MDEQ was doing engaged us to do PFAS testing on their drinking water.”
Rice described the PFAS issue as a widespread problem in constant flux at this point.
“PFAS is categorized as an emerging contaminant, so that primarily means that there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding it,” he said. “On the federal level, experts that are doing the toxicological studies need to make sure that they’re comparing apples and apples when it comes to how was the sample collected, what laboratory method was used to test the sample, and how the sample was tested in the laboratory to come up with the numbers.
“PFAS certainly has the attention of the EPA right now, but they still need to develop these methods.”
He said Fleis & VandenBrink is working to sort through the uncertainty with more than a dozen communities in Michigan, the majority of which have been clients for years. For them, PFAS turns out to be another potential contaminant in water or soil — like arsenic or iron — that they will need to pay attention to in the future.
While Fleis & VandenBrink has doubled its number of employees over the past five years to its current level of about 200 people, the firm has been able to handle new PFAS work without adding personnel, Rice said. Established in 1993, Fleis & VandenBrink has headquarters in Grand Rapids and eight offices in Michigan and Indiana.
“When you compound that with the fact that this is an emerging contaminant, and you further compound it with the fact that this is still being produced (outside of the U.S.) and there are thousands of PFAS chemicals out there and right now the focus only is on anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen chemicals, others undoubtedly will come up as problems in the future,” Rice said.
Along with engineering consulting firms and laboratories, other professional businesses finding opportunities in addressing the PFAS contamination issue are local law firms — regardless of whether they are representing plaintiffs or defendants.
The litigation of PFAS issues in West Michigan can provide invaluable experience that law firms can leverage in other communities, said Paul Albarran, attorney with Varnum LLP, a Grand Rapids-based law firm with offices throughout Michigan.
Varnum currently represents between 450 and 500 individuals in the northern Kent County region who have been negatively affected by the Wolverine PFAS contamination, Albarran said. The firm decided not to take the route of a class action lawsuit because of personal injury aspects in the case and the wide variation in the value of residential properties.
“That area of Rockford is so unique because you’ll have a $700,000 house on two acres and it will be next to $150,000 house on a quarter acre,” he said. “There’s a lot of difference in property values that make it difficult to do a class action lawsuit.”
Other law firms have filed class action lawsuits against Wolverine and 3M Co., the manufacturer of PFAS chemicals that Wolverine used, he added.
Varnum has assembled a core team of four attorneys, three assistants and two paralegals who have made the Rockford litigation their primary duties. When certain matters such as motion practice or discovery responses have to be performed, the core team taps up to an additional eight attorneys in the firm.
Varnum’s litigation is winding its way through the Michigan court system rather than federal court in the hopes that the lawsuits will be resolved quicker and that certain bellwether cases can be used to represent a category or class of plaintiffs. Four cases are scheduled to go to trial in March next year.
“The hope is that in two, three or four years, these bellwether cases will be combined so that people will be in categories for mediation,“ Albarran said.
He jokes that “I can say I’ve been working on this case my entire career” because he participated in a summer associate program with Varnum in 2016, then was assigned to the case when he joined the firm in 2017 after graduating from Notre Dame Law School.
‘Still being sorted’
In addition to learning the practice of law from lead partners at Varnum such as Aaron Phelps, Albarran said the practical experience of dealing with environmental consultants, government agencies such as the MDEQ, and particularly the clients themselves has been invaluable.
“It’s an area of the law that’s exploding across the country,” Albarran said. “Some firms may have some experience in chemical pollution and toxic torts, but with respect to PFAS, it’s kind of an emerging practice group.”
Varnum successfully used the power of social media to both inform the public on the rapidly evolving developments of PFAS news in the Rockford area and help raise the profile of the firm as a legitimate source of credible information.
“We were getting information from document requests and from the government, and we felt there wasn’t a lot of information that was being presented to the public,” he said. “To share the information with everybody, we created a Facebook group called Varnum PFAS Contamination Updates. We grew from zero members to about 3,000 members” after it was launched in October 2017.
“I think that was pretty key in getting people to know us,” Albarran said.
Executives at companies involved with charting a course in how to respond to the PFAS contamination said there are too many undefined issues to make accurate predictions about the business opportunities to be had in addressing the problem, particularly since it’s unclear which PFAS compounds will be regulated and at which concentrations.
“We are engineers, we solve problems,” said Rice of Fleis & VandenBrink Engineering. “Can PFAS be removed in very low concentrations, absolutely. Can it practically be solved, that’s a different question.
“How much effort will it take for an industry or a community to get down to that level? Those are some of the things that are still being sorted out.”