DEQ staffers tell Snyder to veto weaker enviro cleanup standards

A Department of Environmental Quality geologist investigates steel drums for potential PFAS contamination | DEQ photo, Creative Commons

In a rare show of opposition, 82 state employees working for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have urged Gov. Rick Snyder to veto legislation they say would present “unacceptable risks” to the public.

The employees wrote that proposed changes “are based solely on the cost of cleanups” for responsible companies and “have no basis in the protection of health and the environment.”

Jim Stamas

The Legislature sent Senate Bill 1244, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), to the term-limited governor’s desk earlier this week.

The state employees are the latest group to come out against the bill. Environmentalists and Democrats say the measure would weaken environmental cleanup standards by requiring state regulators to use outdated federal standards that haven’t been updated in decades.

It would require the DEQ to apply federal standards, rather than the current state criteria, at toxic waste cleanup sites. Adopting stricter criteria would require a drawn-out rule-making process, under the legislation.

Snyder will also have to decide whether to sign House Bill 4205, sponsored by Rep. Triston Cole (R-Mancelona), now on his desk that would prohibit the state from adopting any rules stricter than federal counterparts. That could also impact PFAS cleanup and vapor intrusion. Snyder has vetoed similar legislation in 2011.

This comes at a time when state officials are scrambling with limited resources to deal with environmental problems that pose enormous potential risks to human health — from PFAS to vapor intrusion. The legislation also comes on the heels of national outrage over Flint’s drinking water crisis, after which Michigan adopted the toughest-in-the-nation standards for lead in drinking water.

Stamas told fellow lawmakers in a House panel earlier this week that it would help ensure Michigan remains “a national leader in addressing” contaminated properties

“The improvements in the bill ensure Michigan will remain a national leader in addressing brownfield properties,” he testified in a committee hearing Tuesday, as Bridge reported.

But environmentalists and state employees who oversee environmental cleanup say it would weaken cleanup standards and potentially put the public in danger.

PFAS danger

Michigan is still reeling from an unknown extent of contamination from a suite of carcinogenic chemicals abbreviated as PFAS. The state has already set a different standard than the federal recommendation in that Michigan requires state action if groundwater levels exceed PFAS levels of 70 parts per trillion.

PFAS has been linked to a host of health problems, including developmental disorders such as autism and cancer. Officials are scrambling to get a grasp on the extent of the contamination and all of its impacts to human health.

Flint River | Susan J. Demas

Michigan also has the strictest-in-the-nation rules on lead in drinking water. They were spurred by the Flint water crisis.

The DEQ employee letter said the bill would mean standards that are “less protective” than the state’s current cleanup rules. It would force state regulators to apply federal criteria that mostly haven’t been updated since 1998 to “some of the most toxic substances commonly existing in the environment.”

That would allow toxic chemicals “to remain in place without any type of warning to anyone … who has the potential to be exposed to unacceptable risks,” the letter said.

Others have been critical of the legislation, as well.

Anthony Spaniola —  a Troy attorney who owns northern Michigan property on Van Etten Lake where PFAS from the former Wurtsmith Air Force base contaminated nearby drinking water and beaches — has spoken out against the plan and praised DEQ employees for penning the letter.

“In a breathtaking act of courage and wisdom, more than 80 dedicated DEQ employees, as concerned Michigan citizens, sent the attached letter to Governor Snyder today urging him to veto Senate Bill 1244,” he said.

Spaniola called it “a gut punch to Oscoda, Grayling and other communities, like those in northern Kent County, who rely on private wells for their drinking water. In Oscoda, we are in the fight of our lives with the Air Force, which the State has already botched. We can’t afford to be handcuffed any further.”

Snyder’s fee plan nixed

Employees in the letter noted that Snyder should not “negotiate away protection of public health and the environment” for the prospect of continued DEQ funding at a time when environmental cleanup funds have nearly dried up.

Gov. Rick Snyder at his year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman

Snyder’s plan to increase garbage fees as a revenue stream would have replaced a fund that has all but dried up. But the plan has died in the GOP-led Legislature, where there’s more interest in easing costs for businesses than cleaning up the environment.

Snyder’s own PFAS response team issued a 90-page report earlier this week that called into question Michigan’s current groundwater limit for the suite of chemicals.

Michigan issued emergency rules last year requiring groundwater cleanup if PFAS levels exceed 70 parts per trillion.

The latest report from Snyder’s team notes that the suite of chemicals can be harmful at levels lower than the current state threshold that mirrors U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendations. The report does not recommend what the new standard should be, but noted that more research should be done.

Businesses dump the chemicals into state rivers and lakes on a daily basis, according to an MLive investigation that revealed state environmental regulators found PFAS in 18 wastewater treatment plants at levels more than 20,000 times the allowed amount into wastewater systems.

Testing data from the DEQ also shows that some level of PFAS has contaminated the drinking water of more than 1.5 million Michigan residents, MLive reported.

Snyder has called for $43 million in supplemental funding to conduct more testing for the chemical.

Gary Howell

Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) dropped legislation last year that would lower the action limit from 70 ppt to 5 ppt. But her bill has languished in a House committee since it was introduced. It won’t receive a hearing this year, according to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Gary Howell (R-North Branch).

Howell said his committee — which held only one informational PFAS hearing and it was during one of the busiest Lame Duck sessions in years — wants to take more time to learn about the issue.

“I’m not gonna advocate changing standards until I know for sure that there’s a safe standard we ought to be looking at. We all have a lot more to learn before we make decisions,” Howell said.

Brinks called the cleanup standards bill the House narrowly passed 56-53 on Tuesday “downright dangerous.”

Some Republicans voted against the legislation, but none made speeches.

Winnie Brinks

Rep. Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Twp.) said she’s particularly distressed by the legislation because of her proximity to Ann Arbor, where residents are concerned about a dioxane chemical plume that has contaminated groundwater there.

The substance is not currently regulated in the federal registry, which also has not been updated since 1998 to include new threats for chemicals that pose vapor intrusion threats. These are toxic chemicals evaporating and leaching into homes and businesses through basements in the form of harmful vapors.

Michigan currently has thousands of sites where vapor intrusion could pose a threat to human health, according to the DEQ. That includes shops in Franklin Village and a Detroit pre-school that was evacuated in 2016 due to harmful chemical vapors, as The Detroit News reported.

“We’re just introducing obstacles and hurdles that don’t allow us to respond in a meaningful way to things like PFAS, to things like dioxane,” Lasinski said.

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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