Source: https://www.freep.com, April 25, 2019
By: Keith Matheny
Sandy Wynn-Stelt knows it’s too late for herself. The chemicals she drank for perhaps 25 years out of her tap — the ones that now poison her blood at levels 750 times the average American’s — will remain inside her body.
They may naturally work their way out over years, toxicologists say. But no one can tell Wynn-Stelt definitively what her prolonged exposure to massive levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS, the emerging contaminant causing a rising crisis across Michigan and the country — will mean for her future health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level in drinking water for two of the most common PFAS compounds, known as PFOS and PFOA, is 70 parts per trillion. The levels in Wynn-Stelt’s drinking water tested as high as 76,000 parts per trillion.
Michigan may have more than 11,000 sites contaminated with these once-common chemicals, now linked to cancer and a host of other ailments. Regulators have identified 46 sites statewide with levels above the EPA’s health limit in groundwater.
“It’s kind of this fatalistic view when you realize you’ve drank so much of this, and you’ve got so much in you,” said Wynn-Stelt, 59.
She learned in 2017 that her drinking water well was tainted by a plume of PFAS groundwater contamination that came from a landfill across the street from her house in the Kent County community of Belmont, where Wolverine Worldwide, the longtime shoe and leather products maker in neighboring Rockford, for years dumped waste sludge from its tannery.
Wolverine made popular Hush Puppies shoes treated with ScotchGard for water resistance. That water resistance came from PFAS compounds.
“I don’t know if I worry about my health so much at this point because there’s nothing I can do about it,” Wynn-Stelt said.
“I’m trying to put my time and energy into making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
PFAS contamination is Michigan’s most widespread, serious environmental crisis since the 1973 PBB disaster, when polybrominated biphenyl fire retardant was accidentally mixed with cattle feed at the Velsicol Chemical factory in St. Louis, Michigan. More than 500 contaminated Michigan farms were quarantined, and 30,000 cattle, 4,500 pigs, 1,500 sheep, and 1.5 million chickens were destroyed. Approximately 85% of the Michigan public received some exposure to the contaminant, tied to cancer, thyroid and hormonal disorders. Studies on long-term effects are still continuing.
There are thousands of PFAS chemicals, many of them little-understood byproducts. Though the chemicals were distributed, purposefully and inadvertently, by 3M, DuPont and other chemical companies for generations, virtually nothing is known about most of them. But PFOS and PFOA — the compounds most frequently cited by regulators because they have received more scrutiny — have been linked to cancer; conditions affecting the liver, thyroid and pancreas; ulcerative colitis; hormone and immune system interference; high cholesterol; pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and negative effects on growth, learning and behavior in infants and children.
From the late 1940s to the 2000s, PFAS was the 3M Corporation’s wonder product. The compounds made by the Minnesota-based company repelled grease and water, so they could be used for a host of processes and consumer products, from wrapping paper for hamburgers to microwave popcorn bags, from nonstick cookware to carpet and upholstery stain guards, from waterproofing shoes and clothes to use in chrome plating industries and even dental floss.
The qualities that made it so useful, however, also make it virtually impossible to break down in nature — giving the compounds the ominous nickname “the forever chemical.” PFAS can now be found in the blood of nearly 99% of Americans. It has even been found in polar bears in the Arctic Circle, as the chemicals have worked their way up the food chain from fish and seals.
The ramifications from PFAS’s widespread use, its persistence and its harm continue to reverberate in Michigan and elsewhere:
It’s not just Michigan’s problem. Products containing PFAS were used almost everywhere. The Pentagon last year identified 401 military sites across the U.S. where there are known or suspected releases of PFOS and PFOA through the use of firefighting foam. On at least 160 of those sites, the PFAS contamination in groundwater exceeds the EPA’s health advisory level.
An analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, using EPA data, last year found that up to 1,500 public drinking water systems nationwide, serving 110 million Americans, contain PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS compounds.
“The whole PFAS issue kind of shows the failure of the entire environmental protection effort that’s going on in this nation,” said Robert Delaney, a DEQ remediation project manager at Wurtsmith, where PFAS contamination first rose into Michigan’s consciousness. Delaney, the first official in Michigan to sound an alarm on the pervasiveness and danger of PFAS contamination statewide, emphasized he was speaking for himself, and not the DEQ.
“Industry understood that these chemicals were toxic maybe 40 years ago. And yet today, we’re having a hard time getting the federal government to address even two of the maybe 3,000 to 5,000 PFAS chemicals that are out there.”
Wynn-Stelt moved to her House Street home in Belmont with her husband, Joel, in 1992, attracted to the surrounding forests and Christmas tree farm on the other side of the street, providing their front-window view. No one told the couple that the trees were planted over the former sludge dump from Wolverine Worldwide’s leather tannery.
Joel died on March 26, 2016, at age 61 of liver cancer, only a few weeks after being diagnosed. Wynn-Stelt says she has no idea whether the exposure to PFAS contamination caused her husband’s cancer.
“I will never know, and that is part of what keeps you up,” she said. “It makes it really hard to grieve when you have all of these unknown questions kind of going through your head.”
In 1938, Dr. Roy J. Plunkett, working at the DuPont Company’s Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey, discovers nonstick PFAS chemicals by accident during a failed experiment with refrigerants. The white, waxy material was the slipperiest substance ever found, and heat-resistant. Initially used in military and industrial applications, within 10 years, DuPont was producing about 2 million pounds of PFAS compounds per year, as it exploded into a variety of consumer uses. It was produced from PFAS chemicals provided by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., or 3M.
Major centers for Michigan’s PFAS crisis are on two different sides of the Lower Peninsula: Oscoda, near Lake Huron, where the contaminant first emerged at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base and is now affecting ground and surface water in the surrounding community; and in west Michigan, where more than 1,500 private wells are contaminated in northern Kent County in and around Belmont and Rockford from PFAS associated with Wolverine Worldwide’s leather operations. About an hour south, in Parchment in Kalamazoo County, a paper mill’s landfill leached PFAS compounds into the community’s drinking water supply.
But they are not the only PFAS problem sites in Michigan. The 46 sites at which groundwater contamination exceeds the EPA’s 70 parts-per-trillion health advisory limit for PFOS and PFOA cover much of Michigan:
The State of Michigan, in addition to testing public water systems, surface waters and fish for PFAS exposure statewide, is also beginning to assess just how exposed its citizens have become in the west Michigan hot spots.
Federal, state and local health officials are collaborating to assess the exposure levels of those with drinking water tainted from Wolverine Worldwide’s sludge disposal sites.
Affected residents are being contacted and asked to participate in clinics, where they provide demographic data and a blood sample. Health officials are hoping to get 400 samples of blood from two resident groups: Those whose water tested for PFAS compounds above 70 parts per trillion, and those who had some PFAS in their water, but below 70 parts per trillion. After exposures are characterized, further studies may be conducted to examine how health issues potentially correlate with PFAS blood or water levels.
In Oscoda, the community faces a tough choice, Oscoda Township supervisor Aaron Weed said.
The Air Force is not effectively acting to curtail the PFAS contamination that is emanating from the former base, where it was used in firefighting foam over decades. The contamination is getting to residential wells, Van Etten Lake and the Au Sable River, Weed said.
Township residents need to call attention to the Air Force’s inaction, he said. But Oscoda is heavily reliant on summer tourism, cottage rentals, hunting and fishing. And every bit that the community is tied to a contamination problem potentially harms that economic driver.
“This is the problem we run into,” Weed said. “We have a lot of people who are affected, who are upset about it, but don’t want to be public about it.”
“We take a hit,” said Arnie Leriche, a co-founder of Need Our Water, or NOW, a grassroots community group engaged on the PFAS problem at Wurtsmith. “We’re a resort community, a low-density population, and we take a hit for every single word in the press (about PFAS) …
“(But) it’s good that it’s there. It needs to be portrayed that this is a statewide issue, and the state government, the past eight years, (hasn’t wanted) to send that message out.”
Robert Tasior is vice chairman of the township planning commission and a member of the Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board, or RAB, a body that meets quarterly, giving community members a chance to meet with the Air Force, the DEQ, the health department and others on where the cleanup stands.
Tasior said his wife, Devon, a real estate agent in the community, has lost sales related to the ongoing PFAS situation.
“One couple was looking at half-million-dollar homes on Lake Huron, but they decided because of the contamination that they were going to look down the road, farther away from Oscoda,” he said.
“She’s lost a couple of sales on Van Etten Lake because of the contamination — she has had people say it’s because of the contamination.”
Kalitta Air, at the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, is the largest employer in Iosco County. The company ships cargo by air and also provides jet engine maintenance for others, including Boeing and General Electric.
“They’ve got 1,400 employees here, air mechanics who make pretty good money, right here on the (former) base,” Leriche said.
Already boasting 240,000 square feet of hangar and engine shop space, company officials are interested in expanding by one or two additional hangars, expecting to create 150 additional jobs. But the company wants protection from the U.S. government against liability from the existing PFAS contamination, and the Air Force has refused, Leriche said.
“They don’t own the land — the township redevelopment authority owns the land; it was given to them by the Air Force,” he said. “The Air Force has a covenant on the deed. That covenant allows the Air Force to do remediation, to do sampling, to even hold up a project until they clean up contamination.”
But that cleanup is moving painfully slowly.
“Delay is hurting our businesses,” Leriche said.
The DEQ last October issued its second Notice of Violation to the Air Force for its lack of response to the PFAS contamination near Wurtsmith.
“The slow response by the Air Force to the Wurtsmith contamination is having an increasingly negative impact on the people, wildlife, and environment in Oscoda,” Carol Isaacs, then-director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, a group of state agencies working together on PFAS issues, said at the time.
The DEQ has sought to require the Air Force to comply with the state’s regulatory limit for PFOS where groundwater vents to surface waters,12 parts per trillion, to help address the continued problem of foam on streams, rivers and lakes near Wurtsmith, including into Lake Huron. Foam samples in the area have tested at more than 110,000 parts per trillion for combined PFOS and PFOA.
The Air Force, however, has declined, stating it is not required to comply with the state’s rules, only CERCLA, the federal Superfund law. The DEQ believes the area around the base perimeter needs 18 granular activated carbon filtration plants to effectively contain and begin to clean up the contamination affecting surface waters; the Air Force has installed two.
“Those (filtration) plants only cover a small portion of the plume — there are still huge swaths that are not being taken care of,” Weed said, adding he has met with “absolute resistance” from the Air Force, and that “it looks like they are trying to just avoid responsibility, even if they have to get ridiculous about it.”
A recent revelation might shed light on why that’s happening. The New York Times on March 14 wrote that the Pentagon, in a report to Congress last year, expressed support for a PFAS cleanup level at its military facilities of 380 parts per trillion, or more than five times the EPA health advisory level for drinking water. The Defense Department has identified 401 military facilities nationwide where PFAS compounds were used, and the drinking water or groundwater of at least 90 of those sites is contaminated with PFAS.
Said Weed, “I’ve told the Air Force, ‘Get the money to fix this problem at Wurtsmith,’ And they’ve said, ‘Well, if we do that, then we have to get money for all the 40 other BRAC bases (Base Realignment and Closure, Air Force bases closed at the end of the Cold War).’
“And I said, ‘What’s the problem with that? You don’t have to treat us special — treat them all. Take care of the problem.’ ”
Meanwhile, recreational activities are being affected by PFAS fish advisories.
Gene Kirvan is a charter captain in Oscoda, one of the few who offer year-round charters on both nearby Lake Huron and the Au Sable River. The DEQ issued a “do not eat the fish” advisory for Clark’s Marsh and the eastern Au Sable River for resident, non-migratory fish as far back as 2012, after testing near the Wurtsmith base found astronomical levels of PFAS in some fish. That hurt Kirvan’s business, he said.
“It was a bit of a shell shock,” he said. “When a lot of people saw the signage, they didn’t quite understand what species were specified, what area was specified. Clarification would have helped soften some of the bomb blast.”
After educating potential charter-takers that prized migratory fish caught out of the Au Sable — walleye, rainbow trout, steelhead, and salmon — aren’t affected by PFAS restrictions, “they are fine,” Kirvan has found.
While sensitive to the impact fish advisories can have on a business like his, Kirvan questions why regulators haven’t yet done more testing of fish — and more informing of anglers — on Van Etten Lake, just outside Wurtsmith.
“We know Van Etten Lake is another hot spot” for PFAS, he said.
“We know we’ve got a toxic surfactant foam out on the lake. We know that foam is hazardous to humans. However, we don’t see any warnings posted, nothing to warn the consumer.”
DEQ spokesman Scott Dean said new “Eat Safe Fish” guidelines for fish in Van Etten Lake were updated and distributed last year, factoring in the results of earlier testing of fish in the lake for mercury and PFOS.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, in a March 3 letter responding to inquiries by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, said, “The situation at Wurtsmith is complex. While solutions do not come quickly under the CERCLA (Superfund) process, the Air Force is committed to working with Michigan to find effective solutions within our authorities.”
In a study published in 2004 in the peer-reviewed Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, researchers examined whether PFAS compounds could be found in fish and animals in and around the Great Lakes. The study found PFOS in zebra mussels and small crustaceans called amphipods at levels 1,000 times greater than the waters surrounding them, indicating the chemical builds up and is stored in the organisms. PFAS compounds were found in every fish tested: round gobies and smallmouth bass, in the livers of chinook salmon taken on the Grand River, in the livers of lake whitefish from Thunder Bay in northern Lake Huron, in brown trout eggs from Lake Superior. It was found in the livers of mink and green frogs from Kalamazoo and in the livers of seven dead bald eagles collected at various locations in the Upper Peninsula. “Concentrations of PFOS were the greatest in mink and bald eagles,” the study found.
The U.S. approach to chemical regulation has led to a thriving, profitable, job-creating industry. But there are trade-offs.
“The fallout of having less restrictive regulations on what we produce is that we’re constantly performing an uncontrolled experiment,” said Matthew Simcik, an associate professor of environmental chemistry in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
“We’re constantly putting these chemicals out there, people are constantly getting exposed, and we’re always playing catch-up on what are the effects.”
Congress in 1976 passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, ostensibly to regulate potentially harmful or environmentally damaging chemicals before they came to market. But it never worked as advertised, and, under chemical industry pressure, it grandfathered in, without examination, 62,000 chemicals already in use at the time it was enacted, including PFAS compounds.
“What happens in the U.S. is we produce a chemical, make a bunch of money off it, and then somebody will realize something about it is bad,” Simcik said
It’s different in the European Union. Under their chemical regulations, prior registration is compulsory when a company intends to manufacture or import a ton or more per year of a particular substance. Regulators can limit or ban the production, marketing or use of certain substances if they are deemed to pose an unacceptable risk to health or the environment.
The first substantive revision to the Toxic Substances Control Act in 40 years hasn’t alleviated critics’ concerns.
A 2016 revision to the law provided a process by which to assess new chemicals for safety before their widespread distribution. But within a year, the EPA, which was responsible for the evaluation, had a backlog of more than 600 new chemicals awaiting review, until President Donald Trump’s then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the elimination of the backlog in August 2017. The chemical industry applauded the announcement, while some environmentalists worried the process was shifting to a priority of quickly clearing chemicals for market rather than protecting public health and the environment.
Added David Andrews, senior scientist at the nonprofit, Washington-based Environmental Working Group, “The whole system for regulating drinking water contaminants is completely broken.”
The process of regulation is hard to navigate by design, he said.
“Corporations, not just on PFAS but other chemicals as well, would like to see no changes ever in the regulatory requirements,” Andrews said.
“There’s an ever-increasing body of science on how widespread these PFAS contaminants are, of how big of an impact they are having on human health. Really expedited action on setting a drinking water standard is the lowest bar here.”
But most of the U.S. doesn’t yet have PFAS on its radar in the way that Michigan and a few other states do, Andrews said.
“We’re still really behind the ball on where this contamination is, where it’s coming from,” he said.
“Nationally, there’s no dedicated effort to identify contaminated sites and clean them up. This issue is much bigger than PFOA and PFOS. There needs to be a national effort to understand and restrict these compounds. The data sets are woefully inadequate.”
The EPA responded to Free Press requests for an interview with an emailed statement, touting the PFAS Action Plan the agency released in February. The plan, notably, does not include a timetable by which it will set an enforceable standard for PFOS and PFOA, one that can be used to force cleanups by polluters.
“EPA is continuing to work through the process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act to evaluate drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS,” agency officials stated. “This includes a formal process for public input and engagement with stakeholders and scientific advisors in order to ensure scientific integrity and transparency. We are also gathering and evaluating information to determine if regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act is appropriate for other chemicals in the PFAS family.”
Researchers in a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational Medicine in September 1993 examined the mortality of employees at a production plant making PFAS compounds. Among their findings: “Ten years of employment in exposed jobs was associated with a 3.3-fold increase in prostate cancer mortality compared to no employment in PFOA production.”
3M, in a voluntary agreement with the EPA in 2000, began a phaseout of its manufacture and use of PFOS and PFOA. But it sold the rights to make PFOA to DuPont, which used it in its Teflon product lines. DuPont would continue to use the product until 2015.
In Parchment, the PFAS contamination problem isn’t tied to individual wells, but the municipal drinking water supply for the entire city, more than 3,100 people in the Kalamazoo County community and neighboring Cooper Township. It’s the only city in the DEQ’s review of more than 1,380 public water systems with PFAS levels above the EPA 70 parts per trillion benchmark, testing as high as 1,500 parts per trillion for combined PFOS and PFOA last July.
The city’s name comes from the paper mill around which the community was built in 1909. The mill operated under varying names over the years, ultimately landing with paper products giant Georgia-Pacific. By the 1990s, 3M-made PFAS compounds were used at the mill to create products including grease-resistant food wrappers for hamburgers and other sandwiches. The mill disposed of its wastes in its own landfill near the site.
In April 2002, Georgia-Pacific entered a consent order with the DEQ, setting forth Georgia-Pacific’s responsibilities in closing the mill’s landfill. The DEQ noted that “[n]ot closing the landfill could result in contamination continuing to emanate into the Kalamazoo River.”
That same year, DEQ found that Parchment’s well field was “highly susceptible to potential contaminants.” PFAS contamination was confirmed in Parchment’s water last July.
With the exception of a stint in the military, David Dykehouse has lived his entire life in Parchment, on the same street, Parchmount Avenue.
The news of the drinking water contamination “instantly made my stomach upset, to think that not only myself, but my wife and daughter” were exposed for an unknown period of time, he said.
Then Dykehouse started thinking about his family’s health history. He has elevated cholesterol levels; his wife has a thyroid condition that “is off the charts in comparison to a normal thyroid issue,” he said. Both conditions have been tied to exposures of PFOS and PFOA.
Both Dykehouse’s maternal and paternal grandmothers died of cancer on Parchmount Avenue, as did a grandfather. His aunt died of throat cancer in the same neighborhood at age 48.
“You can’t help but wonder if the water had something to do with it,” he said.
Dykehouse has signed on to class-action litigation against 3M and Georgia-Pacific.
“I’ve been here all this time, and kept in the dark about it,” he said. “I think it’s time people started knowing.
“I hope we get to the bottom of how this came about, and we fix it for future generations.”
Nicholas Coulson, Dykehouse’s attorney, said Georgia-Pacific is named as a defendant because it was “the entity that was responsible, pursuant to an agreement with MDEQ, for closing the landfill in a safe way.” But the reasons the Parchment residents in the class-action suit have named 3M as a defendant go far deeper.
“All in the name of profit, they continued to suppress and actively make sure that no one found out how dangerous these chemicals were, and what impacts they had on animals,” Coulson said.
“They did studies on rodents; they did studies on the blood concentrations of these chemicals in their own workers. And they sat on it all, and they affirmatively prevented other people’s research from making it into the public eye. As a result, it was 2018 before anybody got around to looking in Parchment, Michigan, for these chemicals. And so, as a result of that, thousands of people were drinking it for time unknown.”
3M responded to Free Press requests for an interview with an emailed statement.
“3M has dedicated substantial time and resources to researching PFAS and, to that end, we have invested more than $600 million on research, technology, and clean-up efforts related to PFAS,” company officials stated. “As a responsible steward of our community, we have a record of sharing information we learn with government regulators, the scientific community, as well as local and federal officials.”
“As a precautionary measure, approximately 25 women of childbearing potential have received job reassignments at the 3M Decatur plant this week so they will not be exposed to a type of fluorochemical that can cause birth defects in rats,” 3M stated in a draft news release dated April 15, 1981.
“Preliminary results from a recent 3M toxicology study showed that three related fluorochemicals affected eye development in the fetuses of rats, according to Phil Raths, manager of the Chemical Resources Division plant.”
3M would market and sell PFAS chemicals for two more decades, with no EPA action to stop it.
The DEQ’s Delaney started sounding the alarm over PFAS contamination long before the state took the actions it’s taking now.
The Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda shut down in June 1993 after 70 years of operation, a casualty of the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
As the base for years hosted nuclear-armed B-52 bombers, personnel trained for rapid response to an aircraft fire.
“Weekly, they would go out and pour airplane fuel on the ground, basically diesel, and light it,” Delaney said. “And they would put it out with firefighting foam, for practice for their airmen.”
The Air Force, as it worked on environmental cleanups around the base before and after its closure, had told the DEQ that it had looked at the fire training areas and determined the firefighting foam wasn’t a concern, that it could be broken down with bio-treatments — “basically, that the bugs ate the stuff up,” Delaney said.
“There was never any concern about what they were fighting the fires with. It was all about the fuels, the spent solvents and other things that had gotten on the ground, and gotten into the groundwater.”
Then Delaney attended a conference in Florida on emerging contaminants in 2010, and learned about problems related to persistent firefighting foam contamination. He went back to Oscoda and asked a consultant to get some groundwater samples at the shuttered base’s fire training area, and to find a lab that could test for PFAS.
“I’m thinking these things are gone, because they are surfactants — it’s essentially a soap,” Delaney said. “I’m thinking they are going to be flushed away. But nope, they are there at relatively high levels.”
A state toxicologist put the recommended cleanup criteria at 60 parts per trillion. A part per trillion equals one drop in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools.
“When we start talking parts per trillion, that means something is extremely toxic and dangerous,” Delaney said.”I realized, I’ve got this big problem dealing with the Air Force now. I’ve got to go and tell them that they’re not done.”
Delaney spent the rest of that year reading everything he could on PFAS and what was known about its danger. Up until the end of 2010, he said he was “just like everybody else,” believing America had the strongest environmental safeguards anywhere, preventing new problems from emerging and allowing for cleanup of old problems.
“But in 2010, that worldview was shattered,” he said.
“I became convinced by the end of the year that these things were really, really dangerous. … I felt nobody realizes this. I honestly felt like I was looking down into the abyss.”
Delaney prepared a slide show for DEQ management about the problem in February 2011. The agency later that year sampled fish in waters around the Wurtsmith base. The results came back on May 2, 2012, and fish were so contaminated that the district health department, that same day, put out “do not eat the fish” advisories for ponds in Clark’s Marsh near the base and a nearby stretch of the Au Sable River for resident, non-migratory fish.
That spurred the Air Force into action on PFAS at the base, Delaney said. But the Air Force’s limited efforts to contain the contamination weren’t stopping it from emanating off the base and into the nearby community’s groundwater, rivers and lakes.
By 2012, turnover at the DEQ left few around who’d seen Delaney’s 2011 slide show presentation.
“It started dragging on and on,” Delaney said. “I saw the department not doing anything.”
By August 2012, with the assistance of University of Colorado toxicologist Richard DeGrandchamp, Delaney had followed through on a promise to prepare a report for new DEQ Director Dan Wyant.
“There will be many other sites in Michigan that contain high levels of PFCs (per- or polyfluorinated compounds) in the environment and in biota (animal and plant life) and potentially in citizens of the state,” Delaney prophetically stated in the report to Wyant and others at the DEQ. The report later added, “Communities with fire training facilities, other Department of Defense (DOD) bases, metal platers, other major airports, major transportation corridors, and other industrialized areas all could have extensive contamination by PFCs.”
“When my report landed on (Wyant’s) desk, they didn’t know what to do with it, I think,” Delaney said.
The DEQ began a statewide reconnaissance study of PFAS in fish and water in June 2013, according to a timeline the agency provided the Free Press. Sampling was completed one year later, and “do not eat the fish” advisories were issued on the Flint River and Rogue River in Rockford by 2014.
In Delaney’s opinion, however, not much else was happening. The agency was not driving any concerted look at other military sites, airports, fire halls or other locations where PFAS compounds might be throughout the state, he said.
In the fall of 2017, a retired DEQ employee shared Delaney’s white paper with Steve Gruber, a Lansing radio talk show host. By October, Gruber had Delaney on his show. Less than a month later, Gov. Rick Snyder announced the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, MPART, which included the state departments of Environmental Quality, Health and Human Services, Military and Veterans Affairs and Agriculture and Rural Development. The group began undertaking an assessment of all municipal water supplies in the state of Michigan for 24 PFAS compounds, the first such statewide examination anywhere in the country.
An MPART science advisory panel, led by Brown University epidemiologist and toxicologist David Savitz, last December found that the 70 parts per trillion EPA health advisory limit, upon which Michigan is relying as a regulatory standard, is likely not protective enough of human health.
Delaney said he has come to believe that widespread chemical contamination is contributing to the crisis of emerging diseases and disorders in America and elsewhere.
“Our bodies are incredibly fine-tuned instruments,” he said. “And if you start screwing around with chemicals our bodies have never seen, our bodies don’t know how to process it. We can’t break these chemicals down — our bodies were never designed to do that. So if they somehow interfere, you can have a huge problem.”
In 1951, DuPont’s Teflon was frequently turning out too lumpy in the manufacturing process. The company began using another PFAS chemical from 3M as a smoothing agent, known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. It was also called C8, as the compound contained eight carbon molecules. It would soon be found in many PFAS-containing products, including ScotchGard protector, a stain repellent 3M began marketing in 1956. Five years later, in 1961, the federal Food and Drug Administration approves using DuPont’s Teflon product to create nonstick cookware. Both consumer products take off in popularity.
Despite the statewide warning flags Delaney had been waving in Oscoda since 2010, it was an odd coincidence that thrust Belmont and the northern Kent County PFAS problem into the spotlight about seven years later.
The Department of Defense, by 2017, had ordered all of its installations nationwide to test for the presence of PFAS compounds. That included the Belmont Armory, a former church.
“That armory was only used for band practice — they didn’t do any firefighting training,” said DEQ environmental quality analyst Karen Vorce.
But the armory came back as a hit for PFAS contamination, beyond the 70 parts per trillion EPA health advisory limit — not because of military contamination, but because of the nearby, closed, leaching landfill for Wolverine Worldwide’s PFAS-laden tannery sludge.
“That really gave us the data to show to Wolverine, to say, ‘You need to do this (neighborhood water testing) fast, and get on this,’ ” Vorce said.
It was a June day in 2017, a little more than a year after her husband’s death from liver cancer, when Sandy Wynn-Stelt was met at her mailbox on House Street by DEQ staff, who asked whether they could test her home’s water.
“They were saying, ‘It’s just out of an abundance of caution,’ ” she said.
Three weeks after testing, Wynn-Stelt got a call from a district health department official, who wanted to set up a meeting in her home with the health department, DEQ, a toxicologist and some others.
“I knew it wasn’t good because you never get a committee to your house to give you results,” she said.
As they told her of the sky-high PFAS levels in her drinking water, no one in the committee meeting mentioned Wolverine Worldwide, or the former landfill across the street, Wynn-Stelt said.
“Then we (contaminated House Street residents) got water and gift cards dropped off,” she said. “And we were told that these were dropped off by Wolverine Worldwide. I think they said something like they are not taking responsibility for it, but they are trying to be good neighbors.”
Only later did Wynn-Stelt find out about the long-closed sludge dump across the street, used in the 1960s.
Thirty-five houses along House Street tested high for PFAS compounds that summer, including Wynn-Stelt’s 76,000 parts per trillion reading. Plumes have been discovered throughout about a 25-square-mile area, going in different directions from the tannery and at least two landfills. The DEQ has not yet defined the outer edges of the contamination plumes.
All told, 536 homes in the area have received whole-house, granulated activated carbon filtration systems for their water.
Tim and Jill Osbeck live in the Wellington Ridge development, about a mile from the North Kent Landfill, where Wolverine Worldwide also disposed of its sludge. Their home’s well water initially tested at about 8,900 parts per trillion for PFAS compounds. It has since tested as high as 17,600 parts per trillion.
“You get angry; very angry,” Jill Osbeck said. “You feel violated, when you think that your drinking water’s been clean. And you think about, our kids were here, when they were younger, drinking it on a regular basis. And then our grandkids — we were feeding them formula bottles with our water. It gets you emotionally, very much so.”
Now the Osbecks must build their life around weekly water tests and quarterly filter changes on the whole-house filtration system since installed in their home by Wolverine Worldwide’s consultants. Their next-door neighbors, however, had only 3 parts per trillion of PFAS compounds in their well water.
“It’s just the plume that you’ve hit,” Tim Osbeck said.
Meanwhile, Wolverine Worldwide is claiming it’s a victim of 3M as well, suing the company in late 2018 for “concealing information about Scotchgard and causing environmental issues.”
Wolverine officials, in response to requests for an interview, referred the Free Press to a company statement:
“From the start, we’ve taken proactive, aggressive actions to ensure all affected residents have access to safe drinking water. In addition, we have worked closely with U.S. EPA, MDEQ, and other regulators to test sites for the presence of PFOA and PFOS, two of the chemicals contained in 3M Scotchgard used in Wolverine’s legacy operations. Most recently, we’ve taken legal action against 3M, which profited for decades from the manufacture and sale of Scotchgard to Wolverine and millions of others, yet refuses to take responsibility for the consequences.”
The statement also notes that Wolverine has sampled more than 1,500 nearby residential wells, and provided more than 700 whole-house or point-of-use water filtration systems to affected residents.
Today, the PFAS-laden waste material at the House Street landfill and other sites in the Kent County contamination zone is still there, still emanating PFAS into groundwater. The EPA worked last year to characterize the type and extent of the waste, and plans to begin the work to remove it later this year.
Wynn-Stelt now looks out her window at the Christmas tree farm across House Street and feels far different emotions today.
“For all the years I lived here, no one came and told us what was disposed of there, when they knew it was dangerous,” she said. “None of that information was ever shared with me.
“Those are the kinds of things that make you fall to sleep at night and cry, because you wonder: Had they told me that 20 years ago, would my life be different now?”