Whitmer orders new standard for PFAS in water supply

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to establish a new standard for the maximum amount of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that may be present in the state’s water supply.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking at the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, March 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

“Michigan will begin the process to establish PFAS drinking water standards that protect public health and the environment,” Whitmer said in a statement. “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 [President] Trump Administration to act.”

However, it’s not clear if the GOP-controlled Legislature will go along with Whitmer’s standard, as state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has promised a rigorous oversight process.

The governor previously clashed with Republican leaders over her executive order reshuffling the DEQ into the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). The House and Senate overturned the order since it scrapped three oversight panels favored by business and industry groups. She issued a second “consensus” order after consulting with leaders.

Whitmer is directing the Michigan PFAS Response Team, or MPART, to review “health-based drinking water standards from around the nation” in order to propose a new standard by Oct. 1.

Rick Snyder | Flickr

MPART was created in 2017 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder to investigate the threat posed by such chemicals to the state, and it was made a permanent body in February through a Whitmer executive order.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) unofficial advisory threshold for PFAS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Critics have said that the agency has delayed action on a revised standard for too long.

When asked by the Advance this afternoon before a Lansing Regional Chamber luncheon if she thought the standard should be lower, Whitmer demurred, saying that “we need to rely on experts and scientists to advise us” and that her office has asked “MPART, the Department of Environmental Quality… and DHHS to have an unprecedented coordination, analysis, and [to] make a recommendation.”

Last year, a panel of scientists assembled by Snyder to study that threshold advised the state to develop “a new set of values based on weight of evidence.” The group said given our “incomplete understanding” of PFAS’ health effects, “all judgments regarding acceptable levels in drinking water should be subject to periodic re-evaluation.”

Eden Wells

Eden Wells, Michigan’s former chief medical officer, questioned the 70 ppt advisory level earlier this month, saying that there “may be impacts of PFAS chemicals that can cause health outcomes perhaps at smaller levels, below 70.” She now serves as DHHS’ population health physician.

The DEQ released the results of its first statewide PFAS study late last month, concluding that 3 percent of Michigan’s public water systems contained levels between 10 and 70 ppt.

Two systems — the city of Parchment and Grand Haven’s Robinson Elementary School — were found to have levels above the 70 ppt threshold. Both were detected before the study’s release and supplied with alternate water sources.

The process may run into a roadblock, however, in the Republican-led Legislature due to a law passed during last year’s Lame Duck session barring Michigan agencies from adopting standards harsher than those set by the federal government.

House Bill 4205, signed into law by Snyder late last December, prohibits such a standard unless either it is passed into state law or the agency director presents a “clear and convincing need.”

Mike Shirkey | Michael Gerstein

Shirkey issued a statement affirming the need to establish PFAS standards, but asserted the Legislature’s role in doing so.

“The Governor’s proposed rule will be vetted and scrutinized by the Senate and will be subject to the regular rule-making process,” Shirkey 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.”

Michigan League of Conservation Voters Deputy Director Bob Allison, however, released a statement expressing optimism.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Allison wrote. “We know legislative leaders are committed to standing together to address this threat to Michigan’s way of life and our economy.”

Debbie Dingell

Some legislators from both parties did praise the announcement.

U.S. Rep Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) has introduced legislation in Congress designating PFAS as a “hazardous substance,” along with U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Dan Kildee (D-Flint). On Tuesday, Dingell said that “Whitmer’s leadership is needed more than ever” on PFAS.

State Rep. Sue Allor (R-Wolverine) said she “applaud[s]” the decision and “urge[s] the governor’s commission to seek sound, science-backed policies that hold up to rigorous scrutiny.”

State Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), who sits on both the Environmental Quality and Health Policy and Human Services committees, praised the decision in a statement. She has pushed for a 5 ppt standard.

“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 her administration in any way I can as we take this important next step.”

Sue Allor

Sean Hammond, deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, was optimistic that despite the many interests at play in setting such a standard, the state will eventually agree to one lower than that currently set by the federal EPA.

“When you set a drinking water standard, it’s a big undertaking and you have to look at all the current buy-ins, and really take all of that into account,” Hammond said.

“As long as we are using the best available science … to determine what the standard needs to be, I think that is the process we should follow, and if we do we’ll come up with a standard lower than 70 ppt.”

Advance reporter Michael Gerstein contributed to this story.

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson covers local government, education, health care and the social safety net, and LGBTQ issues. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington, and before that covered local politics in Chicago. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He enjoys film, the Detroit Pistons and his cat. He once competed in the National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated before any potential ESPN appearances.

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