Michigan sets 2020 deadline to establish limit for toxic chemicals in water

Michigan DEQ contractors
A Department of Environmental Quality contractor checks for PFAS contamination in 2017.

The state has set an April 2020 deadline to implement rules limiting the amount of toxic chemicals acceptable in the water supply, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced on Thursday.

Michigan’s task force on PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly found in industrial waste, cosmetics and other consumer goods — also formally approved the creation of a new science advisory group that will develop those guidelines. According to a press release, a draft of the new rules should be available for review by Oct. 1, 2019.

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

Michigan currently has no drinking water limit for PFAS chemicals, instead relying on an unofficial federal threshold of 70 parts per million (ppm) that is widely regarded by experts as too high.

The lack of an official standard has raised major concern among environmental and public health groups. If the state follows through in creating one, Michigan would become the second state in the nation — after New Jersey — to have such a standard.

“This is a big step in Michigan’s collaborative approach to protecting public health by reducing exposures to PFAS in drinking water,” Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Liesl Clark said in a statement.  “Enforceable drinking water standards will help facilitate the actions of local water supplies and state government to ensure public water supplies are as safe as possible.”

To accomplish this, the PFAS state task force will assemble a group of at least 3 experts on the health impacts of the chemicals, including scientists specializing in toxicology, epidemiology and risk assessment. The state has yet to announce who the workgroup members will be.

The new deadline comes after Whitmer last month ordered the MDEQ to come up with a drinking water standard.

The governor said that Michigan “can no longer wait for the Trump Administration to act,” echoing critics who say the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been too slow to act in setting a legally enforceable standard.

When the Advance asked Whitmer last month before a Lansing Regional Chamber luncheon if she thought the standard should be lower, the governor said that “we need to rely on experts and scientists to advise us.”

Investigators checking for PFAS
Environmental contractors sample the groundwater from former fire training area #2 to check for PFAS at former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan | Breanne Humphreys, Air Force

Previously, Whitmer directed the Michigan PFAS Response Team (MPART)  to review “health-based drinking water standards from around the nation” in order to propose the new standard. But her office did not at that time set a deadline for implementation of the finally agreed-upon rules.

PFAS chemicals have been found in common consumer products such as Scotchgard, fast food wrappers, firefighting foam, and Teflon — the substance that was once widely used in nonstick pots and pans.

MPART was created in 2017 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder to investigate the health threat posed by such chemicals.

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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