Read the full article by Jim Malewitz (Bridge Michigan)

“Michigan has taken a major step toward regulating dangerous PFAS chemicals in drinking water supplies. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week formally proposed limits on seven types of PFAS that would apply to about 2,700 public water systems around Michigan. The announcement came seven months after she directed her Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the multi-agency PFAS Action Response Team to draw up the science-based limits, which must undergo additional scrutiny before becoming final.

Just four other states ‒ New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont  ‒ have adopted similar regulations for the ‘forever chemicals,’ which are increasingly being detected in U.S. waters and are linked to serious health risks. Whitmer’s announcement comes as state leaders across the country are calling on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to regulate PFAS in drinking water nationwide — thus far to no avail.

‘We can no longer wait for the federal government to act, which is why I directed EGLE to establish PFAS drinking water standards to protect Michiganders,’ Whitmer, a Democrat, said in a statement Friday. ‘Moving forward with the rulemaking process moves us one step closer toward building public confidence and achieving real solutions that ensure every Michigander can safely bathe their kids and give them a glass of water at the dinner table.’

Here is a primer on the PFAS rules and what’s at stake…

Formally called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS is an umbrella term for some 5,000 non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant compounds that can also serve as fire retardants. The chemicals have been used in packaging and all sorts of everyday products. They may have been used or discarded at as many as 11,300 Michigan fire stations, landfills, industrial sites, military bases, airports and other locations, according to state estimates. Unlike some other chemicals, PFAS don’t break down in the soil or water, meaning the contamination lingers for decades — hence the ‘forever chemicals’ nickname. At a minimum, trace amounts of PFAS flow in the blood of nearly every American, surveys suggest.

Researchers have linked the most-studied types of PFAS to developmental and behavioral problems in infants and children, hormonal and immunity problems as well as certain cancers. But scientists have closely studied only a tiny fraction of the different types of PFAS…

Because PFAS is potentially harmful at such low levels, scientists measure the chemicals in parts per trillion (ppt). Think of 1 ppt in the environment as a grain of sand in a swimming pool. Whitmer proposed limits on seven types of PFAS — each known by their own acronyms — as follows: 

  • PFNA — 6 ppt
  • PFOA — 8 ppt
  • PFHxA — 400,000 ppt
  • PFOS — 16 ppt 
  • PFHxS — 51 ppt 
  • PFBS —420 ppt
  • GenX — 370 ppt

The proposal also would require drinking water providers to regularly sample their systems for PFAS.

The agency had previously used an advisory level set by the EPA — 70 ppt of combined PFAS and PFOA —  to determine when drinking water supplies might be at risk. Some drinking water systems took action based upon that standard, but it wasn’t legally enforceable, and many scientists criticized it as too lax, anyway…

The proposal covers about 2,700 public water supplies across Michigan, according to the administration’s Regulatory Impact Statement. That includes most municipalities and some schools and day care centers.. It also includes businesses with their own water supplies that don’t rely on municipal water — such as manufactured home communities, apartment buildings and industrial campuses.

The proposal would not directly regulate the roughly 1.12 million Michigan residents who draw water from their own wells — the state lacks jurisdiction to require such residents to test their own water. Once adopted, however, the new drinking water standard would change a groundwater cleanup rule adopted last year…

Water systems exceeding the new limits must publicly report that information, and state regulators could force them to comply, either by compelling them to install new treatment systems or taking other actions. But that process could take time. The proposal ‘does not stipulate a required strategy or timeline to return to compliance,’ EGLE’s Regulatory Impact Statement says. The water supply would likely enter into an ‘Administrative Consent Order’ with the state — a legal agreement to take certain actions to fix a violation. 

‘This process ensures an approach that balances the need to protect public health with the fiscal and technical realities the supply is facing,’ EGLE said…

While Michigan has detected some level of PFAS in more than 100 water systems affecting 1.5 million people, just 22 have recently tested above some of the proposed PFAS limits, according to the EGLE’s Regulatory Impact Statement. Those systems are collectively treating just 930,000 gallons per day. For comparison’s sake, the Ann Arbor’s two treatment plants collectively handle 50 million gallons per day. 

EGLE provided Bridge a list of the 22 systems where regulators recently detected PFAS above the proposed threshold. (View that list here.)  It includes just two small municipalities — Plainwell in Allegan County and the Village of Hesperia in Newaygo County. Also on the list: five mobile home parks, five schools, three child care centers, a career technical center, and six other mostly industrial businesses…

Water systems would pay for the regulations, meaning costs would be absorbed into utility bills. 

The first year of sampling for PFAS under the proposal could cost $6.4 million across all 2,700 water systems, according to EGLE. But the agency says the cost will likely be lower in part because water systems with a good track record would not have to sample as frequently…

While generally applauding Gov. Whitmer’s proposal, some environmental groups have pushed for even stronger protections that would regulate PFAS as a class, rather than singling out seven types of the chemicals. 

‘If only a handful of PFAS are regulated, there will be swift regrettable substitution with other, similarly toxic PFAS – creating an ongoing problem where addressing one chemical at a time incentivizes the use of other toxic chemicals and we fail to establish effective safeguards to limit this growing class of dangerous chemicals,’ scientists for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, wrote in a March report.

Michigan’s science advisory workgroup acknowledged other PFAS compounds are likely to have similar effects as the ones Whitmer proposes to regulate. But the workgroup said it lacked enough information to recommend health-based limits…”