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Robinson residents await testing results

Alexander Sinn • Nov 15, 2018 at 12:00 PM

ROBINSON TWP. — Several residents of Robinson Township received a knock on the door last week, as officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Ottawa County Department of Public Health had come to test their water for PFAS contamination.

Among those residents was Mandy Barlow and her family, who live on 120th Avenue north of Robinson Elementary School. 

PFAS was discovered in the drinking water at the school in October to be above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory. This launched a DEQ investigation into the extent and source of the contamination. 

Officials were helpful, Barlow said, but they did not have all the answers.

“They’re not coming with answers,” she said. “They’re looking for answers.”

Barlow, a president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Robinson Elementary School for seven years, said she and her family switched to bottled water when the initial results were released Oct. 29.

The EPA’s limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) combined perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was exceeded in two rounds of testing at the elementary school, which detected a combined 110 ppt on Oct. 29 and 119 ppt in a second round of testing two days later.

Total PFAS levels at the school were also confirmed — 144 ppt initially and 171 ppt in a second testing.

Twenty-five properties to the northeast of the school are awaiting testing results that are expected in 4-6 weeks, according to the county health department.

While the school was immediately supplied with bottled water for drinking and cooking, many township residents have also switched to bottled water at home to avoid drinking their well water. The Barlow household consumes about 2 gallons per day, a cost of about $2. 

Residents who have received DEQ testing have agreed to wait before raising the alarm, Barlow explained, not wanting to stoke the flames before the results are determined. 

Both of the family’s pediatricians said it was impossible to determine if PFAS had caused any health impacts, Barlow said. The family has lived at their home for 18 years, and both children attended Robinson Elementary School.

“Our well water has tasted great, tested great,” Barlow said. “There’s always something new you can test for. If you dig hard enough, you’re going to find something.”

Dan Wagenmaker, who lives on 104th Avenue north of Sleeper Street, decided to get his well water tested by Trident Environmental. He said it took less than a week to receive the results, which found no traces of PFAS, and cost him $275. 

“I’m always a proponent of taking measures into my own hands,” he said. “I am responsible for my family’s well-being.” 

Wagenmaker, who is married with five children, has lived on the Robinson Township property for almost 20 years. The Wagenmakers’ well is about 170 feet down to the deep aquifer, he said, and he did not expect to find any contamination. 

Wagenmaker said he has been frustrated with residents’ gut reactions on both ends of the spectrum — some have said PFAS is nothing to worry about, while others have placed blame on government officials. 

“I can see if you had water that was contaminated and an entity that was found to be responsible, they should be held responsible to the extent that they had knowledge,” he said. 

Michigan is in the midst of a statewide study of PFAS, which led to the discovery at the Robinson Township school.

The latest round of U.S. Senate hearings took place Tuesday in Grand Rapids and led by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, addressing the state’s response to PFAS. A former DEQ official testified about a report he filed in 2012 warning the state of the potential for statewide PFAS contamination, which was not immediately acted on by the agency. 

Dawn-Marie Stevens lives on Buchanan Street, blocks from Robinson Elementary School. Her home was not selected for the DEQ study, but she doesn’t trust the tap water. The family and their pets — including a cat, two dogs and a bird — are on bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth. Stevens has three nieces who attend Robinson Elementary School, and her family has lived at the residence for 25 years.

Testing and water filters are expensive, Stevens said, and the cost of water for a big family is adding up.

“We’re not playing this game,” she said. “Everybody’s angry about it. Growing up in Robinson my entire life, we didn’t have to worry about this.”

The DEQ will determine which properties to test next once the results are determined from the initial batch of sampling. Until then, Stevens said, it’s a waiting game filled with uncertainty.

“Nobody’s given anybody clear-cut answers of what the next course of action is going to be if this is found in the few homes that they did test,” Stevens said.

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