Michigan is only starting to come to grips with a hydra-headed threat from over 4700 “forever chemicals,” widely known as PFAS, making their way into the state’s waterways, animals and people.
U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin and a panel of scientists, a state official and an environmentalist rang the alarm bell Friday night after a Lansing screening of the sobering 2019 film “Dark Waters.”
Slotkin told the audience at Celebration! Cinema that Michigan has the highest number of PFAS contaminated sites in the United States.
“We are literally on the forefront of this issue in Michigan,” she said.
In the film, attorney Robert Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, discovers widespread PFAS contamination in his West Virginia hometown when cattle die, people get cancer and babies are born with defects. The discovery leads to a decades-long, lopsided legal battle between Bilott and chemical giant DuPont.
After the screening, Slotkin praised Ruffalo, who also co-produced the film, for raising awareness of the issue.
Slotkin said Congress has been working on PFAS legislation, but it’s “been a struggle.”
The PFAS Action Act passed the House of Representatives last year, but the measure is unlikely to reach the Senate floor and would likely be vetoed by President Trump if it reaches his desk.
A lack of guidance from the federal Environmental Protection Agency is a “big problem,” Slotkin said. “We still don’t have an EPA standard for what is safe and what is not,” she said. “So much of the way our government works and acts is based on a standard. If there is no standard, we can’t force someone to clean something up.”
Held together by nearly unbreakable chemical bonds, PFAS chemicals have been used for decades to give a wide variety of products non-stick and stain- and water-resistant properties. Many of these compounds, such as Teflon, Scotch-Gard and Gore-Tex, have been phased out, but the resulting “legacy PFAS” takes decades to break down. Some are still in use, most notably in fire retardant foam used at military bases and airports.
Friday night, Slotkin framed PFAS contamination in terms of her own background, as a matter of “homeland security.” In 2018, Slotkin flipped the 8th District from longtime Republican control, in part on the basis of her national security experience, as a CIA analyst in the Middle East, militia expert and national security official at the Pentagon.
“If you don’t know if you can give your child a glass of water without them getting a learning disability or early cancer, that is a threat to your family,” Slotkin said. “That is traditional homeland security. The way we need to talk about this should be much more muscular. We shouldn’t be ashamed at protecting our family.”
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Slotkin helped to amend the National Defense Authorization Act to require the Department of Defense to stop using PFAS-based firefighting foam by 2020, stop using it in firefighting exercises and to test firefighters’ blood for PFAS.
Last week, MSU started a center for PFAS research, with 13 researchers on staff, according to Cheryl Murphy, a professor and toxicologist in MSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife Dept. and a member of Friday’s panel.
Murphy is looking at PFAS contaminated fish in the Huron River to find out why the chemicals are so insidious, but it will take time to sort out more than 4700 combinations and “combinations of combinations” of PFAS.
“These contaminants act differently than mercury or DDT or contaminants we’ve looked at in the past,” Murphy said. “They’re not binding to your fat. They’re binding to your cell membranes, your proteins, and they’re accumulating in strange patterns we don’t know about.”
Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to kidney, testicular and prostate cancers, high cholesterol, changes in hormone levels, low fertility, hypertension, autoimmune diseases and weakened immune systems, according to Courtney Carignan, an MSU professor on Friday’s panel.
Carignan gave the audience alarming news after working with several affected communities in Michigan, including Oscoda, near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, now an airport. She said PFAS concentrations in Clark’s Marsh near Oscoda are the highest in the world. In October 2018, the state issued “do not eat” advisories for fish and deer in the area around the former base. PFAS foam is visible on the surface of lakes and rivers in the area and is washing into Lake Huron.
A map of Michigan drawn up by the Natural Resources Defense Council placed Ingham County in the lowest category of PFAS drinking water contamination, from 0 to 1 parts per trillion.
However, the state has identified two Lansing sites, out of 75 sites statewide, as probable sources of PFAS contamination: Adam’s Plating at 521 N. Rosemary St., an electroplating operation that ran from 1964 until it was destroyed by fire in 2010; and RACER Plants 2, 3 and 6, a 72-acre site on Lansing’s northwest side stretching from Willow Street southward to Michigan Avenue, adjacent to two former General Motors plants.
Friday’s panel was united in its concern over PFAS in Michigan, but it didn’t agree whether to set state PFAS standards soon or wait until more science is in.
Steve Sliver, director of the multi-agency Michigan PFAS Response Team, said the state is “moving forward” to set safe drinking water standards for seven PFAS compounds and expects to have “enforceable drinking water standards” by May.
The proposed standards range from 6 to 8 parts per trillion for various PFAS and related compounds.
“Not that the numbers can’t go lower, but we want to get these standards in place and not have them held up,” Sliver said. The public can comment on the standards through Jan. 31.
Last week, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced litigation against 17 manufacturers of PFAS.
“That’s another positive step,” Sliver said.
However, Cyndi Roper, senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a longtime defender of the state’s waterways, didn’t buy Sliver’s assurance that the standards can be tightened in the future. Roper also took part in Friday’s panel.
“Every time more science comes in, the numbers go lower and lower,” she said. “There is no guarantee we’ll come back to it.”
Roper also called for a “class-based approach” to all 4,700 PFAS compounds, rather than the individual standards Sliver’s group has proposed, “so we don’t have to play whack-a-mole with these standards as the years go by.”
Roper had more ominous concerns. When members of the Michigan Manufacturers Association showed up at a public hearing on PFAS in Roscommon Jan. 16, their remarks reminded her of the pushback Ruffalo’s character faced from the “titans of industry” in “Dark Waters.”
“You could see it in that room,” Roper said. “They stood there and threatened to sue the state agency if the agency set a standard on a chemical they put into our water.”
With the feds unlikely to act, and the state facing anti-regulatory pressures from manufacturers, Roper gestured at the screen and repeated the painful conclusion Ruffalo’s character makes at the end of the film: “We are the only ones who can protect ourselves.”
To comment on proposed PFAS standards in Michigan, go to michigan.gov/PFASresponse, or text PFAS to 21333. Public comment period runs until 5 p.m. Jan. 31