EPA Faces Lots Of PFAS Questions In Kalamazoo

Oct 5, 2018

EPA Region Five Administrator Cathy Stepp at a roundtable on PFASes in Kalamazoo on Friday.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Where do you get a blood test for PFASes? Is the federal limit for drinking water safe, if several states have set their limits lower? Is red tape keeping the Department of Defense from cleaning up the chemicals at military bases?

The Environmental Protection Agency heard those and other concerns at a roundtable event on Friday in Kalamazoo, attended by about 150 people. Although the EPA did not take comments from the general public, except in the form of notecards that officials say they will review later, some people invited to take part in the discussion had probing questions and pointed comments for federal and state officials.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASes, have been found in the water in several southwest Michigan communities. The City of Parchment shut down its municipal water system due to high levels of contamination. Chemicals in the PFAS family have also been found in private drinking wells in Richland Township and Springfield.

Parchment resident Tammy Cooper said that some candidates for public office (she didn’t use names) have used the city as a campaign backdrop, helping to hand out bottled water while the municipal system was offline. Cooper suggested that some of those politicians had a hand in the problem.

“Some of our elected officials have decided to give authority to corporate polluters on how to police themselves, rather than to have oversight from independent agencies. Handing out water is a small consolation after you have decided to give authority to corporate polluters,” she said.

Blood tests

Among the issues panel members raised, some said residents who have drunk PFAS-contaminated water, in many cases for years, are having a hard time getting blood test to determine their level of exposure. Kalamazoo County Health Officer Jim Rutherford said that no local primary care physician offers those tests. He says some might be available in Grand Rapids, but they’re expensive.

About 150 people attended the meeting at the Kalamazoo County Expo Center.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

“It’s $700 to have one child tested and you’ve got some low-income families that have been impacted. I mean, thousands of residents have been impacted in our community,” he said.

State health leaders say a blood test won’t reveal if a person is likely to become sick from PFAS exposure. But Cody Angell of the group Demand Action says he understands why residents want a baseline.

“So when science does catch up, we’re able to say, “OK, this is where we were at, what are my chances moving forward, what are my risks assessments moving forward?’” he said.

Drinking water standard

The EPA has set a recommended (not required) limit for two PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA. The level is 70 parts per trillion. A few of states, citing research, have set lower levels, and many have developed their own PFAS standards. That’s raised questions about whether Michigan should do the same and whether EPA’s limit is sufficient.

James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council said a study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry “raises some serious questions” about the current standard.

“I call on our state and federal officials to set an interim standard, a maximum contaminant level under the Safe Drinking Water Act, that better reflects the best available science. The public should not have to wait the two to three years it’s going to take to get through that process of officially setting a new maximum contaminant level for PFAs,” he added.

Clift also suggested that the government needs to broaden its scope.

“This is a class of chemicals, it’s 3000 chemicals and we know something about four of them,” he said.

EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water Director Peter Grevatt says the agency is doing studies on two additional PFASes, one called “GenX” and one known as PFBS.

He says the agency has been “taking a careful look” at the existing standard.

Military bases

Some PFAS contamination started on military bases, which used firefighting foam that contained high levels of the chemicals. Arnie Leriche is the co-chair of an advisory board on PFAS contamination in Oscoda, the home of the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. He says that a bureaucratic detail has stymied a Department of Defense cleanup for those sites.

“The DoD I don’t think is asking for more budget money, and I know they haven’t been and they don’t project to ask for any more, even though they’ve quadrupled the number of sites that are particularly affected by these chemicals,” he said.

“They’re not asking in my understanding because it’s not listed as a hazardous substance and therefore, if they’re given money by Congress, they can’t spend it for cleanup because their authorization bill says specifically how CERCLA, the cleanup, Superfund law works.

“That’s a big problem. I don’t know if people in EPA know they’re holding it up,” he added.

An EPA official said the Department of Defense has been invited to all of its PFAS roundtable meetings. It did not appear to have a representative at the Kalamazoo roundtable.