Why did it take so long to sound the alarm on PFAS in the Huron River?

A fish teeming with toxic chemicals known as PFAS sat in a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) freezer for over a year without being tested. That image has provoked outrage from many and stands as a symbol of all that has gone wrong with water quality in the Huron River and governmental response to the issue.


"Why do we not have what we need to be doing to test to keep people safe in Michigan?" U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell asked at a Dec. 18 community information session on the issue. "We've got to make a lot of noise."


PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of manmade chemicals that have been used in products ranging from dental floss to firefighting foam.


Only recently have scientists sounded the alarm bell that too much exposure to these chemicals is linked to elevated cholesterol, thyroid issues, cancer, reproductive abnormalities, and other problems in humans. Even more recently, Michigan has begun monitoring for PFAS and taken steps to clean up local water sources.


The topic has generated a lot of buzz and fear in communities along the Huron River. More than 200 community members, along with state and local government officials, turned out to the Dec. 18 event hosted by the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC), Washtenaw County Health Department, and the city of Ann Arbor at Washtenaw Community College's (WCC) Towsley Auditorium. The same day, former governor Rick Snyder's PFAS advisory committee released a 99-page report on the topic with 17 recommendations, but HRWC officials say it doesn't give them as much guidance as they'd like.


Sounding the alert about PFAS


PFAS have been used in products for about 50 years, and we've known these chemicals have made their way into the environment for more than 30 years. A couple of high-profile cases of contaminated groundwater in New Jersey and Minnesota in the early to mid-2000s inspired 3M and Dupont to start phasing out PFAS, but it wasn't until December 2017 that the Michigan legislature created the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team and designated funds to run it.


After the Flint water crisis, HRWC executive director Laura Rubin says the state of Michigan became "much more sensitive to drinking water contamination issues."


And that's where we circle back to the fish in the freezer.


DEQ officials including Joseph Bohr, an aquatic biologist for the DEQ's Water Resources Division who spoke at the Dec. 18 information session, say that catching fish and keeping them for later testing is business as usual. Rubin says that shows how underfunded both the DEQ and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services are.


"They claim this is standard practice," Rubin says. "They don't have funding, so they collect fish and store it in a freezer for future testing. But after the appropriation of funding for PFAS last summer, it became a higher priority, so they pulled the fish out of the freezer and tested it."


Federal guidelines on PFAS recommend a lifetime exposure of no more than 70 parts per trillion (PPT). So when a fish caught in Kent Lake was tested and found to have PFAS contamination in the range of 5,500 PPT, a fish advisory was issued almost immediately in early August. The advisory was updated later that month to include fish from Kent Lake; the Huron River; Hubbell Pond in Oakland County; and Ore, Strawberry, Zukey, Gallagher, Loon, Whitewood, Base Line, and Portage Lakes in Livingston County.


Unfortunately, despite the federal guidelines, Michigan doesn't have much in the way of state regulations or enforceable standards for PFAS. Dingell says she hopes to change that in 2019.


How state and local officials are responding


Rubin says she's "never seen this level of testing" from the DEQ and hopes that the influx of money from the state will help state health officials get ahead of the issue. Another bright spot is that the Huron River PFAS issue is largely about surface waters and not groundwater, which means less PFAS ending up in drinking water supplies.


Most importantly, state and local officials believe they have identified the top source for PFAS in the Huron River, and levels are already falling.


After high levels of PFAS were detected in the fish from Kent Lake, the DEQ tested 25 sites along the Huron River and got "very high hits in Kent Lake and upstream," Rubin says. DEQ officials believe they have identified the main source of PFAS: Tribar Manufacturing, a Wixom auto parts manufacturer that discharges treated wastewater into Norton Creek, a tributary of the the Huron River.


Shortly afterward, Tribar installed new filters, and levels went down quickly. Because contaminants linger in solid waste, some PFAS are still present in the surface waters nearby. But Tim Skima, Wixom's director of public works, says PFAS levels came down 95 percent just a few weeks after the new filtering system was put in place.


Officials continued testing extensively around the state for other PFAS sources, sampling residential well water, surface waters, and municipal drinking supplies. Locally, there was a troublesome PFAS detection of 14 PPT at Ann Arbor's Emerson School in 2018. Students there have been drinking bottled water ever since.


The city of Ann Arbor began monitoring for PFAS in 2014 and detected elevated levels in 2016. By November 2017, the city had a few years' worth of data on PFAS and began speaking with manufacturers about switching to a kind of granular activated carbon in the city's water filtration system.


"Granular activated carbon is the best available technology at this time," says Sarah Page, drinking water quality manager for the city of Ann Arbor.


Understanding of the pathways PFAS take in the body and how to treat water for PFAS is relatively new and constantly changing. That's making it difficult to get ahead of the problem and to allay the public's fears.


"The science is rapidly evolving, and we don't know as much about the emerging PFAS compounds we're looking at," Page says. "Communicating about an unknown risk is something that's very complicated. We would love to have additional guidance from the state or (Environmental Protection Agency) around that, but that doesn't exist. It's also difficult to relay (to the public) that we're testing in parts per trillion, or one drop in an Olympic-size swimming pool."


Looking to the future


At the local level, the city of Ann Arbor has already updated one-third of the filters at its water treatment plant. Page says the filters can't all be replaced in one go because they're continually operating, but the remaining two-thirds will be changed out this spring. The city is also participating in a research study seeking promising new technologies for removing PFAS from drinking water supplies.


At the state level, activists and legislators are pushing to get regulations and enforceable standards in place, while the DEQ continues to test groundwater, drinking water supplies, and surface waters to find other sources of PFAS.


"We're trying, as (non-governmental organizations) and the government and the public, to provide information about what we do know and don't know and then fill in those gaps," Rubin says. "In this situation, we need leadership at the state government level. We need legislators engaged. We're going to continue to see the effects of legacy pollution from chemicals we've been using for decades, where we don't really understand the health and environmental impact."


The state of Michigan hosts an extensive archive of statewide information about the PFAS issue at michigan.gov/pfasresponse. HRWC also has a dedicated PFAS page that includes a videorecording of the Dec. 18 information session and regularly updated information at hrwc.org/pfas.
Anyone interested in learning more about protecting the Huron River and its watershed is invited to a free Change Makers Boot Camp sponsored by HRWC from 6-8:30 p.m. Jan. 16 at WCC. Find details and registration


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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