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LISTEN: Michigan has a 'head start' on meeting federal PFAS drinking water standards

PFAS-contaminated water is run through a granulated activated carbon (GAC) tank in an effort to filter it. The former Wurtsmith Air Force Base now has 11 GACs in total operating as interim remedial actions (IRAs) to address contamination. A long-term clean up plan has yet to be developed.
Teresa Homsi
WCMU File Photo
Granulated activated carbon (GAC) units filter PFAS-contaminated runoff at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan. PFAS treatment technology is still emerging, but GACs are currently one of the more common methods. Under the new federal standards, public utilities will need to assess their PFAS levels by 2027 and if necessary implement treatment systems by 2029.

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that toxic "forever chemicals" will now be federally regulated.

WCMU's All Things Considered host, David Nicholas spoke with reporter Teresa Homsi about what these new drinking water standards mean for Michigan.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

David Nicholas: There's a lot to unpack here, Teresa, but let's start with kind of the broad view. Tell us a little bit more about what yesterday's announcement means.

Teresa Homsi: These federal drinking water standards have been in the works for a while, but yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency officially implemented maximum contaminant levels or MCLs for six PFAS chemicals.

This essentially requires all public water systems to assess their PFAS levels by 2027, and then, if necessary, implement treatment systems by 2029 to meet this new criteria.

Just under a hundred chemicals are federally regulated this way. Lead, copper, arsenic — those are some other contaminants that people might recognize.

In the instance of the Flint water crisis, state and city officials failed to protect Flint residents from lead levels that were several magnitudes higher than the federal action levels.

They violated federal law, more than once, but now that a similiar type of rule and regulation applies to PFAS levels across the country.

DN: At the end of the day, then, how will this affect Michigan?

TH: Michigan already has these types of drinking water standards for seven false compounds. While the federal ones are a little bit stricter on a couple of the compounds, the transition for Michigan will be pretty smooth.

In a statement, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) said it's basically got a huge "head start" on the rest of the nation.

They started this statewide public water sampling in 2018 and have continued to do that on a regular basis, so the changes will really be felt more in states that don't have any type of drinking water regulations. Now they're federally mandated to have them, and that's most of the Midwest.

But for the most part, Michigan residents who are connected to a public water supply already have PFAS levels tested in their drinking water. Now, it's just going to be a little bit more protective.

EGLE said it still needs to "evaluate what this means in terms of public water supply requirements, in relation to sampling, testing and future treatment if necessary."

Additionally, the state said it will continue to coordinate with the Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on a legal challenge from 3M, a PFAS manufacturer, before the Michigan Supreme Court.

Twelve new extraction wells pump PFAS-contaminated groundwater away from Van Etten Lake to the CTS building for treatment on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
Teresa Homsi
Twelve new extraction wells pump PFAS-contaminated groundwater away from Van Etten Lake to the CTS building for treatment on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

DN: Federal and state policy and now aligning those two, let's bring it right down to on the ground, the local level. What do these standards that were announced yesterday by EPA mean for contaminated sites?

TH: Now, there's this huge federal law that's going to regulate PFAS chemicals unilaterally, universally across the country.

Advocates from contaminated communities have been long calling for these types of federal standards and in hopes of expanding public health protections. But these drinking water standards only apply to public water systems, excluding private wells.

Basically, these levels of PFAS that are allowed are only being regulated between the public water supplier and the pipe to your home. It doesn't extend beyond that, like the actual source of where the drinking water is coming from.

I spoke with a retired environmental attorney from Oscoda, Kyle Jones. He said cleanup is handled under a separate law, and only public water systems have to meet these MCLs criteria. It doesn't actually mandate polluters to do anything.

"As a programmatic and a policy matter, what EPA has done today is very positive," Jone said. "(But) these aren't cleanup standards under CERCLA."

For Michigan, we already have our own cleanup standards for groundwater and surface waters. That's a state law, and that's what polluters like the Department of Defense must meet.

But on the federal level, the EPA has proposed to list two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as "hazardous substances," which would put even more impetus on polluters to address contaminated sites.

"The EPA's rule for the Safe Drinking Water Act — that same science will apply to clean up standards under CERCLA, and they just have to get through the process," Jones said.

Despite the policy's limits, the MCLs are still a very big deal for a lot of people, and it's a huge step in terms of paving the way for there to be more federal protections.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
David Nicholas is WCMU's local host of All Things Considered.
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