Source: https://www.mlive.com, March 20, 2019
By: Paula Gardner
Michigan residents are already paying to address the state’s PFAS contamination even as officials work to get a handle on the depth of the problem.
The price tag to municipalities so far: Millions, with no end in sight as more contaminated locations are identified while debate continues over setting enforceable health and cleanup standards.
Across Michigan, municipalities are confronting expenses they didn’t anticipate just a few years ago.
They’re now paying to extend new water lines, upgrade water system filters, hire legal advice and buy bottled water to deal with a problem caused by chemicals once considered safe. Some communities now are hiring haulers to bring solid wastes to the only hazardous waste landfill in the state. Others look at missed opportunity costs for redevelopment and worry that property values will fall.
Between undiscovered contamination and the potential for unfunded mandates from the state or federal government, Michigan residents may be in line to underwrite the fixes to PFAS pollution for years to come.
In Ann Arbor, where officials spent at least $1 million in 2018 to filter PFAS from its drinking water, the city is considering what that means to ratepayers.
“We’ll need to figure this cost into the amount that we ultimately charge,” Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor.
Ann Arbor is not alone.
Officials in Plainfield Township, north of Grand Rapids, wonder if the community will have to pay up to an estimated $62 million for new water lines to reach a 25-square-mile contaminated zone in northern Kent County.
Grayling Township in northern Michigan this spring is spending $15,000 on initial steps to develop its own municipal water system, following concerns that the Michigan Air National Guard’s cleanup commitments won’t offer long-term safe water solutions for an estimated 400 residents now on wells.
The city of Lapeer finally is close to reducing the PFOS in its wastewater going into the Flint River. But now it’s grappling with what to do with polluted sludge and several expensive options.
Those situations illustrate the range of experiences among the dozens of Michigan municipalities that are learning that per- and poly-fluorinated compounds not only are infiltrating water and wastewater systems while threatening public health – they also bring unanticipated costs to already strained budgets.
“A lot of costs have been shifted to public dollars,” said Kathleen Schuler, strategic adviser to Safer States, a national coalition to advocate for clean water. “That’s a problem.”
Neither the state nor municipal advocacy groups in Michigan are tracking PFAS spending by community. There also is no national comprehensive system for tracking the costs to citizens and ratepayers for PFAS contamination, according to Safer States
At least 10 other states are looking at millions in PFAS-related municipal spending, Safer States found. Still more states face costs stemming from PFAS migrating from Department of Defense installations.
· Up to $40 million to extend a water line in Bennington, Vermont, after contamination from a factory that once coated fabric with Teflon. The company agreed to pay $20 million.
· An estimated $3.5 million for a GAC system in Moose Creek, Alaska.
· $16 million in Stuart, Florida, where the city is drilling more and deeper wells after contaminated ones were closed.
But without comprehensive reporting on the costs of PFAS, there is no national scope for how much of the costs of contamination cleanup and health safeguards shift to the public. Safer States wants the EPA to track it.
“Governments or citizens end up paying a lot of the costs that should be on the backs of the corporations that caused the pollution,” Schuler said.
“Do you still want us to sample these 11 industries? It is so expensive.”
That question is from a Wayne County wastewater employee and written to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in September 2018. At that time, the state’s largest county was still trying to finalize its reporting of probable industrial sources of PFAS moving through the wastewater system.
Each laboratory test costs an estimated $300 to $500. The potential of spending just a fraction of the county’s annual budget was enough to make officials question the value in their pursuit of PFAS.
But state taxpayers are funding millions after Michigan decided to prioritize finding PFAS by early 2018. Officials dedicated $14.8 million to the DEQ’s efforts that year and almost $15 million in 2019. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services received similar amounts. Health efforts go toward staffing, exposure assessments, lab testing and public health response – like the bottled water rushed to Parchment in July, when the drinking water system abruptly was shut down.
The DEQ continues to test for PFAS, moving from public and school drinking water systems this year to industrial sources, landfills and airports. The work reached a critical mass in 2018, when the DEQ spent $4.7 million toward opening its own testing lab later this year.
While the state responds to emergencies – and contributed a well-publicized $750,000 grant to Plainfield Township for its new GAC system – it doesn’t have the resources to fund each of the PFAS expenses in the state. Plainfield Township, for example, spent $1.2 million beyond that grant on engineering, labor, communication and other costs after a well was found with 60-ppt of PFOS.
The costs mount elsewhere, too.
Oscoda Township is looking at $10 million to run water lines to everyone affected by the contamination at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, a cleanup complicated by the involvement of the Department of Defense.
Ionia is working with Ventra, a division of Flex-n-Gate, after the company was found to be discharging high levels of PFOS into the city’s wastewater plant, which in turn sent it to the Grand River. The company is setting up a new filter system, but the city had to find a new option for the residual biosolids until the company gets into compliance.
The cost: An estimated $300,000 to haul three loads to Metro Detroit, on top of $176,763.08 paid to the US Ecology Inc. hazardous waste landfill.
Lapeer, where the state traced downstream Flint River contamination to the city’s wastewater treatment plant in 2016, already has paid $750,000 as it attempts to rid its system of PFAS. Officials estimate they’ll spend $2 million by the time they resolve it.
“The part that bothers me most is the city of Lapeer shouldn’t have to pay that bill,” said City Manager Dale Kerbyson.
Beyond Michigan’s municipalities
Municipalities aren’t the only public bodies affected. Some Michigan schools also face PFAS readings that force safety decisions.
Staff at Robinson Elementary in the Grand Haven Schools learned in late October that drinking water tested at 110-ppt for PFOS and PFOA, above the 70-ppt threshold used by the state for emergency action. Total PFAS reached 171-ppt on a repeated test, prompting immediate action.
Superintendent Andy Ingall sent a letter home to parents of the school’s 300 children that day, after buying 600 bottles of water. Ottawa County ended up buying 33,000 bottles for the school, a supply that should last until the end of the year.
“That was provided to us at no cost,” Ingall said. “We’re grateful.”
But looming beyond that estimated $3,500 in water savings stands the need to find a permanent water solution for the building with a PFAS- tainted well. That could mean a whole-building filter system.
The district already spent $7,000 on an initial consultation as it weighs options, “staying conscious” of costs.
Ingall is raising questions about grants to cover a portion of the work, “but there’s nothing in place at this point.” The district could end up using existing bond fund.
Schools with PFAS tests below the 70-ppt marker also are making choices. At Emerson School, a private elementary near Ann Arbor, total PFAS reached 15-ppt last fall. That number represents two compounds – PFHxA and PFBA – that the EPA announced in February will be studied for toxicity assessments.
With no mandate to act on those chemicals at that level, Emerson decided its PFAS was too high.
“I don’t think anyone is happy with any level of PFAS in water,” said John Huber, head of school.
Like at Robinson Elementary, Emerson officials immediately bought bottled water to offer staff and students. The school is now looking at installing a granular activated carbon (GAC) filters and drilling a new well.
“The bottled water is the smaller of the costs,” Huber said, estimating a solution could reach $50,000.
Dollars spent by Michigan’s cities and townships are only part of PFAS costs incurred by the state. Less easy to calculate are intangible tolls.
“There’s an emotional cost,” said Robert Britigan, mayor of Parchment who faced waves of fearful questions during the city’s water emergency.
He said he heard questions like: How long have I been drinking it? What are the long-term effects? What can I do? Do I have PFAS in my blood? Similar questions reach municipal leaders across the state as residents wonder what the contamination means for them.
Britigan said that in Parchment, city officials urgently had to deal with their primary responsibilities, which included getting bottled water to 3,000 residents in the short-term, then planning to close the contaminated well, and then hook up to the neighboring Kalamazoo city water system.
The emotional reactions, he said, “are out of our bailiwick, but we’re dealing with … a lot of known unknowns.”
Parchment, like other areas, also is dealing with potential stalled redevelopment opportunity. Communities like Flint, Lansing, Ypsilanti Township and Livonia await new owners on the industrial property now controlled by RACER Trust, along with corresponding economic development. Unclear is the role of PFAS in potential transactions for the hundreds of acres listed for sale.
In Oscoda Township, the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport Authority runs the former U.S. Air Force base airport, where it is trying to attract more private business to its 166,000 square feet of buildings and hangars for lease and vacant 470-plus acres. At the same time, PFAS contamination is moving from the base to Van Etten Lake and reaching Lake Huron.
The airport authority will be spending money on baseline environmental surveys this year, said township Supervisor Aaron Weed, to make the facility more attractive and increase employment opportunities.
Otherwise, Weed said, “why should they move or create an operation at Wurtsmith with all of the liabilities they could take on?”
Individual property owners also wonder what the impact will be to the thousands of homes in and near plumes of PFAS.
Oscoda home prices were flat in 2018, according online sales data, compared to an overall increase approaching 9 percent for Michigan. Some deals have fallen through, Weed said, and some cottage rental owners say business slowed last year.
Questions about assessments, which would affect municipal revenue, persist in areas with the highest contamination. Most communities do not have sales data to support declines in taxable values, officials said. But residents still worry that their home prices may suffer.
“The psychological impact or stigma – that’s the piece you have to get over,” Britigan said.
The question of who pays
In the cases where the source of the contamination is known, municipalities are making a range of financial decisions.
Some are looking for state and federal help. Parchment will spend $410,000 on dismantling its water plant and hopes to recover that from the state.
So far, few have turned to litigation or collected from a polluter. Some are considering it, they said, but when the polluter is a major employer – and itself just discovering the extent of the impact – the value may be tempered.
Wixom’s wastewater treatment plant sent high levels of PFOS into the Huron River, DEQ officials determined in summer 2018. The contamination was traced to one of the Tribar Manufacturing facilities in the city northwest of Detroit.
The PFOS from Wixom is believed to be the source of the contamination affecting Ann Arbor’s drinking water and the reason for a “do not eat” fish advisory for most of the 1,000-acre watershed across five counties to Lake Erie.
Wixom City Manager Steve Brown estimated costs so far at over $12,000, including sampling costs of approximately $8,000. While Tribar’s new filter system improved its PFOS readings, the city still is trying to get levels of its effluent down to 12-ppt. Tests showed it at 53-ppt in February. Filtering or other options could be in the city’s future, with Brown saying, “We’re actively looking at it internally.”
Ionia water customers aren’t seeing rate hikes, said Ionia City Manager Jason Eppler. The city is funding the work through reserves, and it hopes costs diminish once the PFAS is cleared.
The cooperation of Ventra means that, while “cost recovery is an option,” Eppler said Ionia is not pursuing that.
“We’re fortunate that they have resources,” Eppler said of Ventra. “They want to be a good corporate partner. That’s what we’ve seen so far.”
Bronson, a community of 3,000 in southwestern Michigan, also has high levels of PFOS in its wastewater plant due to a single company. The city’s $1.2 million annual budget absorbed $18,000 in legal fees and testing bills as it tries to reduce contamination from Bronson Plating, said City Manager Brandon Mersman.
“We’re working to have the company responsible reimburse us,” he said. Mersman would not disclose more, and company representatives wouldn’t comment.
Plainfield Township’s expenses include $137,000 in legal fees so far, in part because it is hoping the courts will help it recoup some costs. Both Plainfield and neighboring Algoma Township joined the state’s lawsuit against Wolverine World Wide, filed in early 2018 by the DEQ over contamination originating with company waste. WWW said it’s spent $30 million so far on mitigation, but township officials say they need a long-term solution.
More litigation to recoup costs is possible in Michigan.
Attorney General Dana Nessel “is bringing actions against entities that have contaminated Michigan’s waters with PFAS, and is evaluating her options in a plan to take action against 3M and other manufacturers,” said spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney. “In the interim, making sure public health is protected where PFAS is found is the first priority.”