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PFAS contamination has grown in Michigan to the point that some Michiganders say presidential leadership is needed to deal with it

 Sandy Wynn-Stelt stands next to the entrance to a PFAS dump site across from her home
Steve Carmody
Michigan Public
Sandy Wynn-Stelt stands next to the entrance to a PFAS dump site across from her home

PFAS has become an everyday reality for many Michiganders.

The state of Michigan has identified thousands of sites potentially contaminated with the man-made chemical.

Michiganders have been talking about what kind of presidential leadership they would like to see on “forever chemicals.”

“We’re walking to my mailbox,” said Sandy Wynn-Stelt as she walks up the drive-way of her home in Belmont, just north of Grand Rapids, “which is right next to the dump site that they’re digging up some of the contamination.”

She and her husband Joel bought the property back in the early 90’s to be in nature, but the property across the street turned out to be a major PFAS dump site.

PFAS are a family of man-made chemicals linked to human health problems including cancers, like the ones that Sandy Wynn-Stelt survived and her husband Joel did not.

“My husband passed away in 2016 of liver cancer, quite unexpectedly,” said Wynn Stelt, “It was the next year that the Department of Environmental Quality came and asked if they could test my water for PFAS. So that was the year I found out

how contaminated our water had been.”

PFAS chemicals were used for decades in many products, from non-stick pans to firefighting foam. And those chemicals remain in the environment.

That industrial legacy is affecting Michigan’s industrial future.

Last June, dignitaries symbolically broke ground on the first stage of development at the former Buick City site in Flint. Symbolically, because the former auto plant site is a 300 plus acre brown field.

As part of its new use as a light industrial center, Grant Trigger and his team are working to clean up the vestiges of its heavy industrial past, which includes PFAS.

Grant Trigger is the Michigan Cleanup Manager for the RACER Trust. At that June ground breaking, he talked about the challenge presented by PFAS, which includes just trying to understand where it came from.

“We didn’t find PFAS on the site until 2018, that’s after over a hundred years of activity on the site,” said Trigger, “And we’ve looked at some of those things…and we’ve looked at the history of the operations….and you can speculate what might have happened but you can’t pinpoint it here.”

Back in June, Trigger said it would probably be best not to use PFAS chemicals anymore.

But for many Michigan manufacturers that’s just not possible.

Caroline Liethen is the director of regulatory and environmental policies for the Michigan Manufacturers Association. She says it’s important for PFAS chemicals to be managed appropriately by manufacturers.

Liethen is concerned fears of PFAS may result in new federal rules that may exceed the state of Michigan’s own “stringent” regulations.

“It’s always a possibility that additional regulations will cause a business to change their practices or even not have the ability to operate any longer,” said Liethen.

She says the decisions made by Michigan manufacturers may depend on the viability of alternates to PFAS in the manufacturing process.

Tony Spaniola is the co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. He wants to see more presidential leadership on PFAS.

Spaniola wants the president to identify PFAS as a public health crisis and better organize the government’s response.

“Having has to work through the bureaucracy for the last six, seven years, the only way that you’re going to get the kind of action that we need is with leadership from the very top,” said Spaniola.

The state of Michigan has identified more than 11,000 potential PFAS contamination sites, that includes car washes, fire stations, oil refineries, plastics and paper mills, military bases, landfills, automotive molding factories, metal plating facilities and many more sites.

Copyright 2024 Michigan Public. To see more, visit Michigan Public.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005.
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