LANSING, MI — Michigan is joining a growing number of states which are drafting enforceable regulations for toxic fluorochemicals called PFAS in public drinking water supplies.
On Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the Department of Environmental Quality to begin the regulatory process for establishing drinking water standards for PFAS, a class of chemicals found at some level in public supplies serving 1.4 million in Michigan last year.
Expedited draft rules are expected to be ready this fall.
“All Michiganders deserve to know that we are prioritizing their health and are working every day to protect the water that is coming out of their taps,” Whitmer said.
According to Whitmer’s office, the state’s PFAS team, MPART, will form a science advisory workgroup to review existing and proposed “health-based” drinking water standards from around the country.
The goal is to establish maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, for PFAS compounds that public supply operators would be required to comply with under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The workgroup will present “public health goals” for PFAS in drinking water by July 1. The proposed regulations should be ready by Oct. 1, after which they’ll go through a more typical state rule-making process.
According to the DEQ, the workgroup will consider standards for the compounds PFOA, PFOS, PFBS, PFHxS and PFNA — the last of which is regulated at 13 parts-per-trillion (ppt) in New Jersey. That’s the only existing state PFAS drinking water standard in the country.
Upset that the federal government is moving slowly on the issue, states like New York, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania have begun developing their own PFAS drinking water standards.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not set enforceable standards for PFAS in public supplies. The agency has an unenforceable advisory level of 70-ppt for PFOS and PFOA that’s been criticized by some states and independent scientists as inadequate.
A science advisory panel convened by former Gov. Rick Snyder to review PFAS health literature concluded in December that 70-ppt may not be protective enough of public health.
The EPA says it will decide later this year whether to establish a national drinking water standard for PFAS compounds.
“Michigan has long advocated that the federal government establish national standards to protect the nation’s water from PFAS contamination, but we can no longer wait for the Trump Administration to act,” Whitmer said.
Michigan PFAS testing to continue at 60 water supplies
In 2018, Michigan found at least traces of PFAS in 62 municipal utilities serving nearly 1.5 million people.
Whitmer’s announcement drew praise from Democrats and environmental groups, which have been pushing for the state to enact regulatory limits on PFAS in drinking water.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, as well as the Michigan Environmental Council, Clean Water Action, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Huron River Watershed Council and Need Our Water (NOW) all issued statements supportive of the move.
“I commend Governor Whitmer for directing swift action to protect our drinking water, our children and our families,” said Tony Spaniola, an attorney and member of NOW in Oscoda, where PFAS from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base has polluted local waters.
Spaniola said that “science has clearly shown that PFAS chemicals pose serious threats to the most vulnerable among us, particularly pregnant women and children.” He expressed hope for a “stakeholder process that includes robust participation from communities whose water has been contaminated, as well as the citizens who have been directly impacted.”
Lansing Republicans were supportive, but reserved.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, praised efforts that began under Snyder to discover and respond to PFAS contamination in Michigan. He called it “imperative that government rely on scientific research and facts” when setting standards.
Shirkey promised scrutiny in the legislature.
“The Governor’s proposed rule will be vetted and scrutinized by the Senate and will be subject to the regular rule-making process,” he said. “The Senate has worked diligently to fund efforts to assess and mitigate the impact of PFAS and my colleagues and I remain committed to pursuing science-based standards to protect the health and safety of our constituents.”
Bonnifer Ballard, director of the American Water Works Association in Michigan, said she’s pleased the governor is prioritizing public health and likes the idea of a scientific workgroup review, but she expressed concern about the “aggressive” timeline.
“There’s an established process and accelerating that may cause people to inadvertently make some ill-informed decisions,” Ballard said.
The Michigan Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers and distributors, sounded a skeptical note about the proposal.
“We encourage a careful review process that accounts for the numerous determinations and their potential ramifications,” said council director John Dulmes. “Today’s announcement leaves many questions unanswered, including which PFAS compounds will be proposed for regulation and on what basis of risk assessment.”
Dulmes said the chemistry council believes "the EPA and other federal agencies are ultimately best-positioned to develop such rules, and have reinforced their commitment to do so. For that reason, we urge the Whitmer administration to ensure that science – not politics – is at the front and center of this proposed process.”
Scott Dean, DEQ spokesperson, said MPART will meet April 4 in Lansing to select experts for the workgroup. That meeting is open to the public.
Dean said the workgroup will consider health-based criteria developed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and recommendations from groups ranging from the Natural Research Defense Council, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and other states with proposed drinking water standards.
Meanwhile, the DEQ will begin talking with communities, environmental groups, business interests and utilities as part of what’s generally called the “stakeholder” regulatory review process.
As part of the rulemaking process, DEQ is required to consider analytical and treatment technology capabilities and identify the costs and benefits to communities, he said.
“This is pretty unique for us,” Dean said. “Really, only one other state has set a rule for PAFS in drinking water and that’s for PFNA in New Jersey.”
After Oct. 1, the timeline for the regulations to take effect gets a little muddy. The DEQ is unique in state rulemaking because its proposals must go through additional review by a panel established under Snyder that has the power to overturn proposed regulations.
Whitmer tried to abolish that panel earlier this year, but her executive order was overturned by Republicans in the legislature in January.
State Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, issued a statement calling the plan for setting a PFAS standard “good news for every family and community in our state.” Brinks introduced a bill that would set standards at 5-ppt for the compounds PFOS and PFOA, but Republicans in the state legislature have shown little interest in moving the legislation.
“Enforceable standards based on the best science available put us on the right path — one that holds polluters accountable, deters further contamination and keeps the hardworking people of Michigan safe,” Brinks said. “I look forward to helping (Whitmer’s) administration in any way I can as we take this important next step.”