Carl Ganter: Welcome to H2O Catalyst and What’s In My Water? That’s our question today. And fast emerging chemical contaminates called P-F-A-S, or PFAS, are the tip of the spear for threats to groundwater in Michigan and nationally. Nitrates, industrial chemicals and pathogens have been swept underground for decades. What else is in the groundwater and seeping into drinking water and what are the risks? And a new report calls the situation a groundwater emergency.
I’m J. Carl Ganter, Director of Circle of Blue and we’re coming to you live from Interlochen Public Radio with another interactive broadcast.
This H2O catalyst is part of a series of urgent conversations about the world’s number one global risk. Risks to supplies of fresh water around the planet and how to respond. To share your questions and comments via Twitter, #knowwater.
And we’ve already received dozens of questions, so send along yours. And you also have the chance to discuss these issues live during today’s event in special breakout groups with expert guests and journalists from Bridge, Circle of Blue, Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Now, and MLive.
After opening remarks, we’ll be going to our experts and into breakout groups where you can join the conversation and we’ll first be joined by Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan. Last week, he called a Senate Subcommittee Hearing to dig deep into the ramifications of a chemical family called PFAS that is contaminating groundwater in Michigan and across the nation.
And we’ll speak with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who exposed water contamination in Flint, Michigan.
And then we’ll be joined by experts and journalists on the front-lines of these stories that are evolving every day. We’ll learn what happens to PFAS chemicals in groundwater from Dr. Christopher Higgins, Environmental Chemist at the Colorado School of Mines and more about what experts are calling Michigan’s groundwater emergency from Dave Dempsey, Senior Policy Advisor at Flow and the report’s author.
And we’ll hear about the clean water act, Coal, Ash, and Groundwater, from Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project.
We’ve been receiving questions in advance and lots of them and we’ve passed them along to our moderators for the breakout groups ahead. And the results of the program, including a podcast version will be posted online.
But first, Circle of Blue’s Brett Walton spoke earlier today with Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan.
Brett Walton: Last week, you helped convene a Senate subcommittee hearing on the federal lull in responding to perfluoronated chemicals, also known as PFAS. Based on that hearing, what do you feel is Congress’s role in this?
Sen. Gary Peters: Well I think there’s a number of things that we have to do. First and foremost, we need to put more money into research. One thing that came out very clear, in the hearing, was that we still don’t know a whole lot about the human health affects about this class of chemicals and we’re talking about 3,500 different type of PFAS chemicals. We need to have increased research dollars. In fact, part of what came out of the hearing, which I think was a surprise to some folks, is that the impact of the human body may not be limited to the folks who are drinking water with PFAS in it. There also may be a pathway through the air, or even in skin contact, and certainly that’s very concerning, given the fact that PFAS is put on upholsteries and clothing and other ways that people may have contact with it, so certainly there’s a need for additional research. The impact of the human body may not be limited to the folks who are drinking water with PFAS in it. There also may be a pathway through the air, or even in skin contact, and certainly that’s very concerning, given the fact that PFAS is put on upholsteries and clothing and other ways that people may have contact with it, so certainly there’s a need for additional research.
The impact of the human body may not be limited to the folks who are drinking water with PFAS in it. There also may be a pathway through the air, or even in skin contact, and certainly that’s very concerning, given the fact that PFAS is put on upholsteries and clothing and other ways that people may have contact with it, so certainly there’s a need for additional research.
But the other fact that I think is absolutely critical, is the EPA has an enforceable standard and I pushed them pretty hard in that committee that we’ve got to have the standard. Folks need to know what is a safe level, if any, and what standards do we have to clean up to. I was reassured by the EPA that they thought they’d have something this fall. But they’ve been saying that for some time. They’ve always been kicking the can down the road and we’re going to keep pushing that.
Gary Peters: And I think the third area, certainly, is where accountability can be tied to federal properties, particularly the Department of Defense. A number of military facilities have this type of contamination as a result of their fire-fighting foam and so there will be contamination related to that and we’re going to have costs associated with that cleanup.
Gary Peters: But I’ve also, in the short-run, have been working to try to limit the amount of PFAS that’s going into the environment. In fact, in the FAA Reauthorization we’re going to be taking up this week, in the Senate, I’ve got language in there that will allow civilian airports to use alternatives to PFAS in their fire-fighting foam, this reducing the amount going into our environment.
Brett Walton: The EPA is preparing a PFAS Management Plan that’s expected to be released by the end of the year. What do you hope to see in that plan?
Gary Peters: Well I hope, first off, we can get an enforceable standard so that we can hold folks accountable for this type of contamination. Not just federal government properties, Department of Defense, etc, but also private industry. No, this is not contamination that’s confined to federal properties, although that certainly contributes to it. But we have a lot of lakes throughout Michigan.
Brett Walton: When you say enforceable standards, meaning what?
Gary Peters: Well, meaning that there’s a standard to cleanup and if you can find accountability for someone, that they’re the ones responsible for the PFAS, that they would then be required to start mitigation strategies, as well as cleanup.
Brett Walton: And then are you interested in, or think it’s necessary to have a drinking water standard from the EPA?
Gary Peters: Oh yes, absolutely. Absolutely. So that’s part of what we’ll be continuing to push for.
Brett Walton: And if the EPA decides not to act, is that something that Congress should consider requiring?
Gary Peters: Yes. Yeah, definitely. There’s no question this is critically important. I think PFAS, this can very well be a situation very similar to lead and other things and products that have been widely used and were widely used throughout many, many years people have been exposed to. This is something that we need to be addressing nationally. This is not a Michigan issue. This is a national issue. In fact, at our hearing, I had my two colleagues from New Hampshire there who were very concerned. Very high levels of PFAS contamination in many parts of New Hampshire, as well, so this is a national problem that requires my colleagues throughout the Senate and the House to be engaged in. This is a national problem that requires my colleagues throughout the Senate and the House to be engaged in.
This is a national problem that requires my colleagues throughout the Senate and the House to be engaged in.
Brett Walton: What information do you feel like you need to know, that you don’t know, that you need to take additional next steps?
Gary Peters: Well part of it is back to the health-related information, you know, the National Institute of Health, they don’t really, fully, understand how all this works and it may also be difficult to know if there are any kinds of safe levels. It depends on the kind of research.
Gary Peters: I did secure some additional funding through the NDAA, which is our National Defense Authorization for increased research into these chemicals, but that’s not an easy task given the fact that this class has 3,500 chemicals associated with it. But it certainly leads to a number of questions as to how we are creating these chemicals without background testing to understand what impact they may have on the human body. Eventually, they get released into the environment. Now with new technologies coming on board, we’re likely to see even newer compounds coming out at an accelerated rate. So I think this raises a host of questions, not just related to PFAS, but generally, the manufacturer of new chemicals and whether or not they pose a potential human risk.
Brett Walton: And lastly, the EPA has said that it will hold a community meeting in Michigan later this week to discuss PFAS chemicals. They’ve held similar meetings in other states around the country. Do you have any additional information about that meeting that you can share with us?
Gary Peters: We are in the process of working with them right now, as far as working out the details and we’ll have that information shortly.
Brett Walton: The meeting is on October 4th and 5th, correct?
Gary Peters: That’s correct. That’s what I have as the dates. But as far as a more individualized detail, my staff has been in communication with them and we’re still developing … We’re still finding out exactly what they have in mind and pushing them to make sure that they give every opportunity possible for individuals to be able to express their concerns about this.
Brett Walton: All right. Thank you Senator Peters.
Gary Peters: Great to be with you. Thank you so much.
Carl Ganter: And that was Circle of Blue’s Brett Walton with Senator Gary Peters. And now we have Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha on the line. Dr. Mona, thanks for joining us today.
Dr. Mona: Thank you for having me.
Carl Ganter: It’s our pleasure. And you have a new book out, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story Of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City. And that American city is Flint, Michigan. And last night you spoke to a full house of about 700 at the National Writers Series in Traverse City. Before you even started, you got a standing ovation, so overall, what do you think that means? 700 people standing before you even started. What’s that telling you?
Dr. Mona: It’s absolutely humbling and it reminds me that our state cares. It cares about water, it cares about our children. So, it was great to be in Traverse City this year, to share the story of Flint, but the story of my book and what I really I hope to share with you today is that Flint’s just the tip of the iceberg. You know the title of my book is What The Eyes Don’t See, so it’s very much about what happened in Flint. Lead is something that, lead in water, we don’t see it, we don’t see the effects of lead, it’s known as a silent epidemic, but it’s also about lots of things that we don’t see, not just in Flint. It’s about problems that are often underground and out of sight and not in my city.
Carl Ganter: Having been through the Flint crisis, what’s really your advice as Michigan and the nation turns attention from water pipes, water pipes really, to water underground, where it’s even harder to see?
Dr. Mona: Yeah and I think that’s definitely what Flint has brought to light, that we’ve really opened people’s eyes all over to what is in our drinking water. Because of Flint, there’s been an incredible ripple-effect that people are now testing and they’re questioning the safety of their water and they’re finding contaminates, be it lead or be it PFAS. They’re no longer believing that our water is safe. And I think that’s amazing, I think that’s incredible, I think people need to be engaged and understand what we really took for granted, and even myself as a pediatrician in the middle of the Great Lakes. I believed, and I told my patients, that our water was always safe and it was not. What we’re seeing right now with PFAS and what Senator Peters alluded to is really a history in this nation where industry has had the upper hand.
We have been governed by industry, making scientists prove that the chemicals that they put into the environment are safe until proven harmful and that is absolutely contrary to common sense and contrary to what we need to practice in public health and pediatrics, which is the precautionary principle. We should not be putting all these chemicals into the environment unless they are proven safe, rather than proving harm. And so often, we neglect what happens to our children who bear the brunt of these contaminants and we don’t see the consequences for years, if not decades, if not generations later.
Carl Ganter: So, it’s more than a doctor in a book, you were really a detective and really diving into this for groundwater and for these other contamination, contaminants, we met with people who, and one of our headlines was, there’s fear and fury, people were scared and they’re upset. It took you more than a year to really reveal the Flint challenge. What do people do?
Dr. Mona: Yes. I think one of the lessons of Flint, which was proven successful, is the necessity to form teams, to build a village of folks that are united in whatever cause that you’re working towards. So, in Flint it was a group of folks that were moms and activists and incredible role of journalists and water scientists and the medical community that came together. So, just as your agenda today has all these different, diverse multi-disciplinary folks who are bringing this issue to light, that’s how we should continue our advocacy as we continue to uncover these similar issues.
Carl Ganter: Great. Well thank you very much. And Dr. Mona, I know you have a busy day so thanks so much for joining us.
Dr. Mona: Thanks for having me, I applaud your efforts to bring these issues to light.
Carl Ganter: And now, we’re going to turn to Garret Ellison. Garret is a reporter for MLive who’s been covering the PFAS situation and Garret, we’d love for you to give us a general status, an overall report. What’s happened and where is this story headed?
Garret Ellison: Thanks for having me Carl. You might be able to say this past year, I think everybody who pays attention has been seeing PFAS in the headlines on an almost daily basis and that’s largely due to what happened last summer when the news broke regarding the Wolverine World Wide contamination in the Rockford, Belmont area. That was, essentially, the discovery that tannery waste, which had been dumped in the landfill back in the 60s and completely forgotten, in the meantime, was discovered to have contaminated wells in the Belmont area and once that discovery reached the public consciousness, it’s kind of brought us, to some degree in Michigan, where we’re at today, which is a statewide effort to root out PFAS in the environment in many different places and there’s many different medias possible they’re looking for in the groundwater, and lakes and rivers, and the Great Lakes, and landfill leachate, and wastewater, and drinking water. So, there’s a real effort by the state, right now, to find PFAS.
To go back a little ways, we first found it, I guess the state regulators first found it in 2010 in Oscoda at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base and so the folks up in Oscoda have been really dealing with it and the fact of life much, much longer than everybody else has.
You referenced earlier your Circle of Blues piece, “Fear and Fury.” That’s a pretty good way, I think, of characterizing what the folks in Oscoda are feeling. They’re mad. Things have been taking quite a while to get to where they are up there, which is, at this point, they’ve got some actually remediation going on which is further along than any other site in Michigan.
We’ve got quite a large universe of sights though, and part of the issue, well, part of everybody seeing new headlines on a daily basis, it’s because the state’s looking for, paying attention to it now and it’s finding it. And now, people are becoming, through that process, people are becoming much more aware of what the risks are. What they mean, we’ve got, I think at this point, we have about 1.8 million people in Michigan are drinking municipal water with some level of this contaminate in it. That ranges from, I’d say, 1,800 parts per trillion is what they found in Parchment and then down to about two parts per trillion and that’s what you’re getting in the Grand Rapids water system, which pulls directly from Lake Michigan and isn’t filtered in any way. At least for this contaminate.
It’s quite a lot of people in Michigan are drinking some level of it. There’s been a lot of, I think, attention recently on the Huron River over in Southeast Michigan. They’re finding PFAS is entering a tributary through a wastewater treatment plant in Wixom. It’s an industrial source of the pollution. It’s chrome-platers, the auto-supply industry. So, you’re seeing a Do Not Eat Fish advisory, an emergency Do Not Eat Fish advisory, which is a fairly rare thing. You’re seeing a lot more attention being paid to foam on surface waters.
Used to be, in the past, people would just not really pay a whole lot of attention to, you see foam on the river and you don’t think too much of it, but now people are paying more attention to that and going, okay, is that a pollution concern? PFAS is a factor and when it adds to the water agitation, it foams up. We’re seeing that in Rockford, in Oscoda, we’re seeing it on the Huron River in Ann Arbor, we’re seeing it in Grayling, it’s starting to pop up and it’s not just in Michigan. There are other places around the country, and the world, that are having that problem.
So, we’ve got a pretty large universe of contaminated sights in Michigan. We’re dealing with canneries, waste dumps, air bases, Wurtsmith, Sawyer, Grayling, Battle Creek, Alpena, you’ve got airports. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids, Bishop in Muskegon, Muskegon County Airport.
It’s getting into lakes and rivers through wastewater treatment plants, sources include chrome plating industries, GM, former GM properties, the Racer Truck stuff, old landfills, active landfills, it’s quite a broad universe.
Carl Ganter: Quite a list. We’ll come back to you in the breakout group as well, too and we can elaborate on that. So Garret Ellison’s been covering the story for MLive and his reporting can be found at mlive.com. And like I said, we’ll hear more from you, Garret, in just a few minutes.
But now, let’s go back to Brett Walton, our senior reporter at Circle of Blue who’s been covering groundwater issues worldwide.
And Brett, we heard from Garret [Ellison] about Michigan’s groundwater challenges. And your conversation with Senator Peters, set the scene and walk us through the complicated groundwater story that’s affecting people across the nation.
Brett Walton: Thanks, Carl. While much of the nation’s groundwater is of good quality, pollution risks are numerous, dispersed, and growing. Coal-ash ponds, drip heavy metals into aquifers, while nitrates from farms, livestock operations, and septic tanks percolate underground. Abandoned mines and industrial sites often place the burden of cleanup on the public. Add to that, you have leaking oil storage tanks, wastewater injection wells in waste dumps, as other sources of concern. Across the country, the slow buildup of pollution, like the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, has profound consequences.
People are getting sick with cancers, diarrhea illness, developmental diseases, and maladies we’d previously thought eradicated in the country. The hottest groundwater pollution issue today, as we’ve mentioned, is the group of industrial chemicals known as PFAS. Thousands of chemicals, as others have alluded to, are in commercial use in the US without knowledge of how they alter human bodies or ecosystems as a whole. These compounds have found their way into groundwater around the nation.
PFAS, the latest example, they were developed by chemical companies after the second World War. They were incorporated into a dazzling range of household products: non-stick skillets, water-repelling jackets, stain-resistant carpets, floor cleaners, waxes, paints, insect traps. A wide, wide variety of uses. In groundwater, they’ve been traced across the country to military bases, fire stations, landfills, hospitals, schools. These are all large institutions that use foams or waxes or cleaners that contain the chemicals.
In fact, the closer that regulators and scientists look at drinking water supplies, the more PFAS chemicals they find. The Defense Department is one major source. The department counts more than 400 active or closed bases with a known or suspected release of PFAS. The military has spent more than $210 million on cleanup so far. What they will have to spend in the future is a matter of some debate, full remediation and payment of health benefits, if it comes to that, will cost tens of billions of dollars, though no comprehensive accounting has taken place.
These issues are playing out in hundreds of communities around the country from New Hampshire and New York to Colorado and Washington. They’ve drawn intense scrutiny in Michigan, which, as Garret mentioned, is one of the most affected states.
In Michigan, at least 35 contamination sites, from military bases to industrial waste dumps, from the tannery wastes have affected drinking water, as we said, perhaps 1.8 million people, according to state figures.
Brett Walton: Today, we have three speakers who will help guide us through some of these issues and we’ll be able to join them, listeners will be able to join them in breakout groups later in this call. Our first speaker we have is Christopher Higgins. He’s an Environmental Chemist at the Colorado School of Mines. Christopher, why do we need to pay attention to PFAS chemicals?
Dr. Higgins: It’s a great question, and the short answer is that the group of compounds that we’re really most concerned about, which are these truly perfluorinated compounds, a subgroup of PFAS more broadly, they’re extremely persistent in the environment. Basically, they redefine the meaning of environmental persistence in environmental chemistry. And what that means is they’re going to be with us for a very, very long time. So that alone is potentially problematic because it just leaves them there that much longer to potentially cause a problem.
Some additional aspects of these chemistries, or these chemicals I should say, that also have created some concern and chief among them is the fact that these compounds combine two types of behavior that we don’t normally see in a combination. When we think about environmental contaminants, there are several compounds out there that are relatively mobile, so they move fairly quickly in groundwater and service waters and yet, they don’t tend to bio-accumulate. On the flip side, they’re also some compounds, PCBs being a good example, which are fairly bio-cumulative, but not very mobile. We think of them as very much focused on specific sites. A contaminated sediment site or so on.
The problematic aspect of PFAS, again, particularly the perfluoroalkyl acids is that some of them are both mobile and bio-cumulative. And so it means they can spread much more rapidly, but also bio-accumulate, either in fish or in crops. And so that creates lots of concern in terms of the spread and speaks to the broader potential for exposure of the population.
Brett Walton: All right. Thanks Chris, we can go a bit more into detail on the fate and the transport of PFAS chemicals in the environment in the breakout groups. That was Christopher Higgins and Colorado School of Mines.
Our next speaker we have is Dave Dempsey. He’s a Senior Advisor at FLOW and he’s the author of a recent report on Michigan’s groundwater emergency.
Dave, what makes it an emergency?
Dave Dempsey: Good afternoon. Well, it’s an emergency because there are a variety of threats to groundwater that are either being poorly addressed or not addressed at all. And I think it’s important to begin by just recognizing how important groundwater is. Talked about what the eyes can’t see and they definitely can not groundwater until it comes to the surface, but while it’s beneath the surface, it can do a lot of good or a lot of harm.
In Michigan, 45% of the population gets its drinking water from groundwater sources. That figure, nationally, is about 38%. But we also depend on it for other uses, such as agricultural and industrial and importantly, if you want to have healthy Great Lakes, you have to have healthy groundwater. About 20% to 40% of the flow in the water budget in the Great Lakes originates as groundwater, either seeping directly into the lakes or more commonly feeding rivers and streams that then are transported to the lakes. So reportedly, the importance of groundwater, but also the variety of threats, some of which we’ve already heard about, including PFAS. Some of the factors include leaking septic systems, which in Michigan, are estimated to be about 130,000 that leak. Not only bacterial waste, but because we use a lot of chemicals in our homes, can also release chemicals to the groundwater.
As mentioned, agricultural practices can also contaminate groundwater and are doing so at thousands of private wells across the state with nitrate. They also have a legacy of thousands of still not cleaned up contamination sites for which we need some kind of funding source to ensure they don’t cause further problems.
Michigan tax payers have already spent over $1 billion on cleanup and it looks like they’ll have to spend another billion over the next 20 years to deal with the groundwater contamination.
Finally, one of FLOW’s central purposes is to remind people of the importance of the public trust doctrine and the responsibility of government to protect water resources unimpaired and to prevent privatization and because the groundwater is so closely linked to surface water, it’s important that we extend that obligation and those protections to groundwater, as well.
Brett Walton: All right, thank you. That’s Dave Dempsey and we’ll have a chance to go more into depth on Michigan’s groundwater emergency in the breakout groups.
Our third speaker we have today is Lisa Widawsky-Hallowell. She’s a Senior Attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project who focuses on coal ash.
Lisa, how does coal ash affect groundwater?
Lisa Widawsky: Sure, that’s a really important question this year, and in general. So, coal ash, also known as coal combustion residuals, or CCRs, is the byproduct of burning coal. It contains a variety of pollutants including arsenic, selenium, boron, and cadmium that can cause adverse effects to human health and the environment if released into groundwater and other mediums.
Every year, more than 110 million tons of coal ash is generated at coal-fired power plants. While some is reused, much of the coal ash is simply disposed of in dry disposal place called landfills or wet ponds called surface impoundments. Coal ash has been in the news a lot in the last 10 years, and recently, due to several catastrophic breaches, including the breach at the TVA Kingston plant in 2008, which caused more than a billion gallons of coal ash to spill into two rivers. Most recently, coal ash has been in the news as Hurricane Florence headwaters, in North Carolina, breached coal ash dams at a couple of power plants causing coal ash to flow into the Cape Fear and Neuse rivers.
However, much of the risk associated with coal ash disposal sites lies, not in the catastrophic breaches, but in the leaking and seeping of coal ash contaminants from unlined, or poorly lined disposal units into underlying groundwater. Many coal ash disposal sites have been operating for decades without liners or with inadequate liners and many sites that are no longer receiving waste can still continue to leak pollutants into groundwater at unsafe levels for a century or more.
Prior to 2015, there were no federal regulations governing how to dispose of coal ash, so states had a patchwork of laws, or some had no rules at all, for how or where coal ash could be placed. A compilation of damage cases by the US EPA following the breach of the Kingston dam resulted in EPA confirming, in 2014, that there had been at least 157 coal ash damage cases nationwide. Notably, for our talk today, 10 of these damage cases were in Michigan.
Damage cases are sites where health effects were confirmed by scientific studies or administrative ruling and this is the highest number of damage cases for any type of waste reviewed by the EPA at that time.
Carl Ganter: What we’re going to do is put everybody into breakout groups and you’ll be able to carry on that conversation with Lisa and Dave and Chris Higgins here in just a minute. And the panelists and moderators will explore these ideas in much more detail.
Once you’re in the group, this is where it gets fun, you’ll see a shared document on your screen. If you have a question for a panelist, you’ll type it into the document so the moderator can see it and you’ll have the choice of joining one of these three dynamic groups using your phone or the Maestro screen. So pay attention here, I’ll say this twice.
Group one is Great Lakes Now reporter, Mary Ellen Geist, who’s joining us. And she’ll be talking to Dr. Christopher Higgins and you’ll hear more from Dr. Higgins, and Environmental Chemist at the Colorado School of Mines. And, as you heard, an expert of PFAS chemicals and groundwater.
Group number two is MLive reporter, Garret Ellison with Dave Dempsey, author of the new report, “Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency,” and talking about other forms of pollution beyond PFAS that are affecting Michigan’s groundwater and groundwater elsewhere too around the Great Lakes.
And then group number three is Circle of Blue’s Brett Walton with Lisa Widawsky-Hallowell, Senior Attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, talking about the Clean Water Act and more specifically, about coal ash.
So we’ll give you a moment to make your choice now. Again, press one on your phone, or the raised hand on your interface for group one with Mary Ellen Geist and Dr. Chris Higgins on PFAS impacts. Press two for Garret Ellison and Dave Dempsey on Michigan’s groundwater and three for Brett Walton with Lisa Widawsky-Hallowell and the Clean Water Act.
[Participants enter breakout conversations.]
Carl Ganter: Carl Ganter here. Some great conversations everybody. Welcome back. Fascinating listening to your comments in the breakout groups. I had a chance, actually, to surf the sessions. So we’ll take just a few seconds to bring us all back to group and we’ll have report outs from our discussion leaders and we’ll have our experts in the room, as well. So, just hang with us for just a moment or two and we’ll bring you all back to group.
Great. Well again, fascinating listening to the conversations. What I’d like to do is take a few minutes to hear highlights from each of our discussion leaders and then we’ll go back to a bigger group discussion for overall perspective. We’ve been capturing your comments and additional questions.
And also, let me point you to the work of our moderators and our collaborators in this project. Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Now is at greatlakesnow.org. Bridge Magazine is bridgemi.com, of course mlive.com, and circleofblue.org. You’ll find all of our Great Lakes and national and global groundwater coverage there at circleofblue.org.
Mary Ellen, you were in with Dr. Christopher Higgins. Give us a sense of what you talked about. What were some of the main points?
Mary Ellen Geist: I think one of the most riveting parts, and perhaps frightening is we talked about response to it and how the government might be involved and what can we be doing, personally, and on public level, on a federal and local and state level. And he said this is one of the most challenging issues of our time. And even as a chemist who studied this chemical for 17 years, we know so little about it.
What we do know, I think, causes a lot of consternation for so many people in that it is a forever chemical. This chemical’s in you, it’s in me, it’s found in the blood of polar bears in the Arctic. It’s everywhere. If it is ingested, it stays in the body for many years and if it’s in rivers and streams and oceans and lakes, it stays in for a very long time, as well. And so, we could get into some of the chemical makeup and some of the discussions we had of how it’s in the groundwater, but I think the pervasiveness of it and the way that it stays in the body and in the land and in the environment in every way and how it’s found everywhere, all because of the chemical that humans wanted to find that would waterproof things, would work in fire-retardants, would keep oil and water off a material, and the way that humans had no idea, when they invented this chemical, that it could end up everywhere and in our bodies. And there really are not many answers right now about how to get rid of it.
Carl Ganter: Mary Ellen, thanks so much, we’ll come back to you in just a bit.
Carl Ganter: Garret, fill us in.
Garret Ellison: Well, Dave and I talked about, largely, the new report out from Dave’s non-profit, FLOW. For Love of Water in Traverse City and we talked about the fact that it sounds like Michigan’s a fairly poor steward of the groundwater. The report is more or less calling for an overhaul and the way the state passes groundwater through regulation and maybe some of the philosophical approach to thinking about it. It’s an out of sight out of mind approach is the way that Dave and FLOW kind of characterized it.
We talked about some of the concerns, some of the issues that we’re having with groundwater, particularly related to contamination from septic systems. It appears something that the … estimated 130,000 leaking septic systems in the state. Michigan’s the only state in the nation which lacks a statewide law protecting groundwater, or regulating groundwater as it relates to septic systems.
So that’s one of the recommendations that FLOW is making, related to how we ought to rethink our approach to groundwater. Some of the recommendations here include identifying long-term funding, such as a bond fund going straight to voters, figuring out ways to clean up orphaned toxic sites. Some of these sites that no longer have a liable party, in which case the public ends up being on the hook to pay for it.
We talked about some public education, how to discuss, how to get the word out, so to speak. I guess some of the thought here is that we’re just going to have to find out how the legislature and the administration, whether it be a Schuette administration or a Whitmer administration, that’s going to approach this stuff following the election in November.
Carl Ganter: Great, thanks Garret. So it’s not just PFAS, it’s nitrates, orphaned or legacy toxic sites, and a big taxpayer expense.
A more national conversation with Brett Walton, who was with Lisa Widawsky-Hallowell and a national perspective. Brett?
Brett Walton: Hi Carl. We talked, mostly, about coal ash, which has a lot of moving pieces right now in a legal realm and especially, but also, in some rules and regulations.
Initially, we started with a baseline knowledge about where coal ash ponds are located, what they are, what they store, and how they interact with groundwater and can be a conduit in some cases, for pollutants to move to rivers and lakes through that groundwater. Some of those moving pieces we talked about are kind of two-fold. Once was a rule that the EPA put out in 2015 about coal ash impoundments and that was recently sent back to the EPA by federal courts saying certain provisions were not strong enough and that there needs to be revisions that take place for that.
The other path we talked about, on a legal front, is a bunch of court cases, right now, that have been heard by federal appeals courts about whether coal ash ponds, if they leak pollutants via groundwater into rivers and lakes, whether those coal ash ponds should be regulated under the Clean Water Act, and courts, to this point, have come to conflicting conclusions about this conduit theory that groundwater pollutants that move through groundwater to a river or lake, whether that should be regulated or not and it’s something that, ultimately, might end up as a question before the Supreme Court because there’s been a split in the federal appeals courts and there’s been a couple petitions to the Supreme Court to hear this issue. That’s something to pay attention to in the years to come about, it’s really a question about the scope, of the Clean Water Act, which was generally not applied to groundwater.
Carl Ganter: Thanks Brett. Great reports from everybody.
Carl Ganter: A quick question for all of you. Any questions among the group of moderators here about the other groups that you weren’t part of?
Carl Ganter: Mary Ellen, any questions for the other folks?
Mary Ellen Geist: Well I think that, in general, what I’m not hearing that I’m getting just a lot of people in our space, at greatlakesnow.org are asking questions about the health effects. And so from my research, I just wanted to lay this out and also see if any of you discussed this in your groups, but as far as we know, it has been linked to high cholesterol, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid problems, developmental problems, potential for miscarriages, and I guess, I sometimes think in the discussions, we don’t really talk about what could potentially happen to human beings if they ingest high levels of PFAS and I guess I just want to bring that up. It can be quite a dangerous substance, according to many people, at high levels. And I wondered if any of you discussed this in any of your groups, the real effects, potential effects of drinking high levels of PFAS over a long period of time in drinking water or through eating fish that have it. Anything else that any of you can say from your groups ’cause those are the questions that I’m getting from people asking me questions about PFAS.
Garret Ellison: This is Garret. I can tackle that a little bit. With the caveat, it’s not really a discussion or point that we got into with Dave Dempsey and I in our group. But, nonetheless, having done a lot of reporting on PFAS, what I can say is, Mary Ellen, the list of symptoms you just rattled off, that’s largely the known associations, I believe, that came out of what’s known as the C8 Health Study which was conducted on the population around Parkersburg, West Virginia, in the Ohio River Valley, related to DuPont putting a lot of PFOLA, one particular PFAS compound, into the drinking water supply for numerous communities. I think there was something like 50,000 to 70,000 people were part of this health epidemiological health study that was paid for through a lawsuit brought against DuPont. And those health effects that you outlined are kind of the baseline to some degree, health effects that the ATSDR, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is part of the CDC.
If you go to their website and you click on the links related to what are the known health effects of PFAS, that’s generally the list that you get. That’s not the only associated health effects, it’s just sort of the most concrete ones that have been studied in terms of a population-wide study that has stood up to peer review pretty well. There are definitely others. It’s just one of the, I think, difficulties with PFAS that researchers and regulators and the academic community are trying to figure out is what are the different health effects of the different variants of chemicals in the PFAS family? So, what are the health effects of PFOS exposure versus PFOA exposure over an extended period of time? What are the health effects of a mixture of PFOS and PFOA and PFHXS and PFNA and other PFAS compounds that tend to be found in any given water sample that’s tested for PFAS? You don’t usually just get one, you get several. Some of them are, individually at low levels, but when you add them together and the sum total can be fairly high. Higher than health advisory benchmarks at certain times.
And what the fairly consistent answer that we get from health experts is, we just don’t know yet. There’s just not enough study. Not enough epidemiological study and it’s frustrating to try and, from a journalist perspective, to try and translate that and turn it around and convey the seriousness of the problem without hard data sometimes.
Carl Ganter: It’s complicated. It’s really complicated.
Carl Ganter: Brett, did you have any questions for the rest of the group there, after being with Lisa there and then hearing from Garret and Mary Ellen?
Brett Walton: I think we’ve got some audience questions that have come in, we can get to those.
Carl Ganter: Go for it.
Brett Walton: One of which here was a question about cleanup and who’s going to pay for cleanup costs, why do water utilities have to take responsibilities for cleaning up someone’s problem.
So cleanup cost is a good question. It’s something that, from a national level, we have the Superfund Program and that tries to find a responsible party and recover some of the cleanup costs from them. The problem with PFAS is that it needs to be designated a hazardous substance by the EPA to allow EPA to have the authority to require cleanups and to fine the parties to recover costs from.
One of the problems here is that sometimes you can not find a responsible party because the company might have gone out of business or it changed hands a bunch of times. In that case, cleanup costs can be put on the taxpayer. And that’s, I think, one of the points in the FLOW report is that there’s a lot of sites in Michigan that are on the taxpayer now because no responsible party has been found.
Cleanup costs are going to be massive. There’s been no estimate done, nationally, to take a look at this. I know that Senator Peters, in his hearing last week, requested from the Defense Department an estimate of what it thinks it might take to clean up PFAS compounds at military bases and that’s something that we’ll be looking for in the months to come, is are there estimates and what is that number?
Carl Ganter: Great, thanks Brett.
Chris, I’m really curious what you’re hearing. You’re in Colorado looking across the way here at Michigan and, as what Mary Ellen characterized as one of the most profound challenges of our time. How’d your conversation go there and what are you hearing from us, here in Michigan?
Dr. Higgins: Well I think she did a great job characterizing that because I do think, from an environmental contaminant perspective, it is one of the more challenging issues that we’re going to have to deal with. And hearing a little bit about the issue, talking with other health experts about what does it mean we’ve got all this milieu of compounds in our water and the frustration of not knowing the answer, we hear the same thing here talking to folks. And I think it brings out the broader conversation about how we’re addressing chemicals and safety and I think that was brought up in the very first part of this discussion and the need to rethink, maybe, how we’re doing it and to think more about the issue of precautionary principle. I think one of your first speakers mentioned that.
I think, from my perspective, the public has, essentially, accepted the idea, many folks from the public have accepted the idea of the precautionary principle, that is chemicals should be considered dangerous until proven safe, but that is not necessarily how our regulations are set up. And so I think that there’s going to have to be a little bit of a reckoning with that. This issue maybe the catalyst to provide that. Time will tell to see how that plays out.
Carl Ganter: Great, thank you Dr. Christopher Higgins joining us from the Colorado School of Mines.
So, it’s one of the most challenging issues of our time. You heard, it’s all about what we can’t see and from the Great Lakes to polar bears, we’re seeing contaminates reaching from our shores all the way to the polar ice caps.
So if you learned today, it’s a dynamic and deep and changing story and we barely just scratched the surface. And from our six Great Lakes in Michigan to the aquifers and contamination across the state and the nation, and what we’re seeing here in our reporting at Circle of Blue around the world. It’s one of the most important stories unfolding.
We did hear some solutions and some responses. A lot of call for education asking, really, what’s in the water? Is it safe? And we’ll keep asking the questions and hope that you will, too. And to, perhaps, rethink how we think about that what we can’t see and that what comes out of the tap.
Again, just the start of a much, much greater conversation. And so I want to say thanks to our guests today and of course, Senator Gary Peters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. Dr Christopher Higgins and Dave Dempsey and Lisa Widawsky-Hallowell. And to our journalists who joined us today, Garret Ellison, Mary Ellen Geist, Jim Malewitz was in the room there too, from Bridge. And to Bridge and Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Now.
We’re in the studios of Interlochen Public Radio with engineering help from Gary Langley and to our team at Circle of Blue has all been here working on questions and all the behind the scenes. We’ve had help from Circle of Blue’s Laura Herd, Connor Bebb, Cody Pope, and Matthew Welch. With Kayla Cragg in Michigan, here and Barry and Sherry of the Maestro and Conference team back in San Francisco and other parts far and wide.
So read more at bridgemi.com, circleofblue.org, and greatlakesnow.org and also of course mlive.com. A podcast version of this event will be posted online at circleofblue.org and from all of us at Circle of Blue here, thanks so much for joining. There’ll be lots more. I’m J. Carl Ganter.