PFAS water crisis demands action from government

Michigan is at the center of an environmental disaster — and strong leadership is desperately needed. Now.

More than a dozen communities across the state are already affected by PFAS as the chemicals contaminate drinking water, creating a real public health threat.

Recent news stories showed, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known collectively as PFAS have worked their way into Michigan’s lakes, rivers and groundwater. Sadly, high-level state officials largely ignored a detailed report — drafted six years ago — from one of their own experts about the problem. This from Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration that so badly botched the Flint water crisis.

To be sure, the administration is now making progress with the creation of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), which has been held up as a national model in responding to the contamination problem. Much more needs to be done.

To protect the public, the EPA needs to quicken the process for setting much-needed maximum contamination levels for not just PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), but others as well. We need a broad-based health-protective regulatory structure for PFAS as a class of hazardous chemicals — not individual compounds, since there are thousands of them and there is no practical way to regulate them individually.

Without actual limits on the concentration of PFAS allowed in groundwater, drinking water and soil, and the hammer of a hazardous substance designation, the Department of Defense can’t be forced to clean up contamination or companies and other polluters held liable. These actions are years overdue.

The Department of Defense needs to move with a far greater sense of urgency to clean up contamination in communities, such as Oscoda, that it polluted. Use of PFAS in firefighting foam at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base has contaminated the groundwater and surface water in Oscoda and Lake Huron.

Making residents and communities exposed to toxic chemicals wait extended periods of time for remediation is troubling and unacceptable. The defense department’s foot-dragging has allowed the problem to fester, impacting more natural resources.

There is growing evidence that low levels of PFAS exposure are more harmful than initially thought. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the health effects of PFAS said the provisional risk level is 11 parts per trillion for PFOA and 7 ppt for PFOS.

The fallout from Michigan’s failure to respond to the Flint water crisis immediately should be a glaring reminder for the governor, legislature and the next administration about the human and political costs of not leading in a crisis.