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Doing the right thing shouldn’t be temporary

Doing the right thing simply can’t be a temporary change of direction for state regulators.

We were heartened to hear the director of Michigan’s task force in charge of addressing PFAS groundwater pollution declare her agency would upend its current practices and, at least for now, prioritize notification of at-risk residents who live near three potential contamination sites.

Last week MPART Executive Director Abigail Hendershott said residents whose water wells draw from the ground near former or active airport sites spread across the state would be notified of potential contamination, and their well water tested for PFAS about a year ahead of what state policies and procedures now require.

The change is an injection of common sense into a bureaucratic process that prioritizes procedural dogma over the health of Michiganders. Existing rules allow officials to follow an agonizingly slow process that places communication with and comfort of suspected polluters above notifying nearby residents who may be consuming and using contaminated well water.

That’s not just a hunch, it’s fact.

And we only know details of the flawed system because we witnessed it unfold in our community. It’s a debacle that echoes the mishandling of the Flint water system, an episode that allowed residents there to consume lead-laced water for months before they were told.

This time, state regulators spent eight months writing letters to Traverse City airport officials about PFAS contamination emanating from beneath the aviation facility before they notified nearby homeowners whose water wells had already been flagged as at-risk for contamination.

Those misplaced priorities meant residents in 18 homes continued drinking, cooking with and bathing in PFAS-laced water for eight months longer than necessary. In the months since a Record-Eagle reporter broke news of the delay related to contamination beneath East Bay Township, we learned state regulators had employed similar procedures at other contamination sites in the past, allowing Michiganders elsewhere to obliviously consume tainted water.

To make matters worse, state regulators tried to explain away their obvious missteps with grotesque claims that somehow the impacted residents were kept in the dark about potential PFAS contamination in their drinking water in an effort to prevent panic.

Neither their bureaucratic buttocks covering or the misguided process they attempted to protect pass a smell test.

The temporary change Hendershott announced last week is exactly the kind of common sense approach we called for months ago.

She said regulators will contact residents near suspected contamination sites and collect water samples from their homes.

The agency’s simple pivot leaves us wondering why such a quick process to ensure the health and safety of people near contamination sites wasn’t already the default procedure? Further, it leaves us confused about why state leaders seem reluctant to make the change immediate and permanent for all current and future contamination sites?

After witnessing months of handwringing by state regulators and leaders whose misguided policies now are in the spotlight, we are hopeful their temporary discomfort will result in long-term change.

And we expect that change will finally place the health of Michiganders above the comfort of polluters.

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