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WOOD: Confronting a poisoned past, uncertain future in West Michigan

• Oct 20, 2017 at 4:00 PM

By now, the situation in Plainfield Township and Rockford, north of Grand Rapids, regarding per- and polyflouroalkyl substances, or PFASs, has broken wide open in the media.

For a brief recap: Wolverine World Wide, a large footwear manufacturer located in Rockford, spent decades dumping scraps of leather and hides that had been treated with PFASs into various (and seemingly random) sites throughout Plainfield Township. To be fair, little was known about the health effects of the chemicals (that comprised the trade name many of us know as Scotchguard) and regulations didn’t exist at the time regarding proper disposal.

Now that the science exists to test the effects of exposure to minute amounts of such chemicals, we are learning of a strong correlation between PFAS exposure in drinking water and certain types of cancers. People are scared, and rightfully so.

This type of pollution is called “legacy pollution,” and Wolverine is far from alone. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense is another “legacy polluter,” and Michigan is littered with former military installations where use of PFASs in firefighting foam, as well as other applications, has left wells and groundwater contaminated, and communities are just now confronting a poisoned past while feeling uncertainty about their futures.

PFAS contamination of drinking water is not unique to Michigan. Multiple states around the country are coming to terms with legacy pollution, as wells and entire aquifers are beginning to test positive for these poisonous compounds. In the face of such discouraging proliferation of toxins in our most vital resource — drinking water — communities, and even entire states, can feel defeated and powerless.

Some states, like New Jersey, have taken matters into their own hands. When New Jersey officials determined that exposure rates to PFASs could be as high as 1 in 5 people, they became the first state to enact a limit on the allowable amount of PFASs in drinking water. This move was ahead of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who adopted the New Jersey limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). While this seems like an infinitesimal amount, New Jersey went a step further, enacting its own more stringent level of 40 ppt just a few years later.

Research from Harvard and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell indicates that an acceptable level of PFAS in water may be as low as 1 ppt. With the science shifting rapidly, and new hotspots popping up at an alarming rate, Michigan would be wise to adopt its own allowable limit, in line with New Jersey. However, a piece of legislation that moved out of Senate committee recently, House Bill 4205, would prevent Michigan from doing just that.

Known as “No Stricter than Federal,” HB 4205 prevents state agencies from establishing any regulation that would be stricter than the standard set at the federal level. The only exception is with legislation regarding education. While proponents of the bill claim there is an appeal process if we were to desire a “stricter than federal” statute, litigation and procedure would be costly to all Michiganders who pay taxes to a state that is already struggling with a balanced budget.

Additionally, with 20 percent of the world’s fresh water touching our borders, dune ecosystems found nowhere else in the world, and abundant wild game attracting hunters and anglers (and their tourism dollars) to our state every year, Michigan has too many unique natural resources to abdicate our regulatory powers to Washington.

Regardless of what party is in power in Washington, Michiganders deserve better than to settle for federal regulations that are often created as a “floor” rather than a reflection of best practices. We know how special our state is; we know how best to regulate it, as well.

If you feel that Michigan should retain the right to set our own standards to protect our residents from chemicals in drinking water (among other threats), call state Sen. Arlan Meekhof’s office today (517-373-6920) — or state Sen. Hanson’s office (517-373-1635) if you live in Muskegon County — to let him know that House Bill 4205 is bad for Michigan, and we must not cede our authority to protect Michiganders to the federal government.

— By Bill Wood, executive director for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC).

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