More than four years after the Flint water crisis, Michigan officials encountered a new challenge this summer when the Department of Environmental Quality revealed some water quality tests around the state — including in Ann Arbor — contained a toxic chemical called perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.
Brian Steglitz, manager of the Ann Arbor Water Treatment Plant, believes on a local level there is very little to worry about and the plant is handling the situation well. He explained the risks associated with PFAS were still largely unknown, though the chemical has been linked to an potential increased risk for cancer and other health problems in some studies. In September, Steglitz announced a “do-not-eat foam” warning at an Ann Arbor City Council meeting.
“The challenge with PFAS is that it is emerging,” Steglitz said. “We don’t have all the information we really need to assess what the risks are and what the safe levels are. I think a lot of that is going to come in the coming months and maybe even years.”
According to Steglitz, the water treatment plant has been testing treatment technologies for the past year and the city recently spent $850,000 to implement an effective technology in all of the city’s filters.
“In terms of PFAS, I think we’re very well-prepared to deal with this emerging contaminant. I feel extremely confident that the water we’re delivering to our customers is safe,” Steglitz said. “We’ve been piloting new technology, a new granular activated carbon media in our filters, and we’ve been finding it to be successful at removing two of the PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, that are part of the EPA’s health advisory. Because we’ve been piloting it and it’s been successful, we decided to put it in all of our filters.”
Laura Rubin, vice chair of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability advisory board and executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, said it was difficult to accurately gauge the level of the threat because it is a new issue.
“We’re still in the process of identifying where the sources are and how pervasive they are throughout the watershed,” Rubin said. “Regularly, there are new issues that come up that we need to address. I would say a lot of our work is continual monitoring, continual work with our local government … we need better science and understanding on what current levels are okay for human health.”
Additionally, Rubin expressed frustration with the DEQ, which she believes is not doing enough to help the situation. Rubin said it is important for Michigan to be a leader in water safety because of its industrial past.
“Right now, the DEQ has been underfunded for a couple years and also been undermined by many of the current policies and practices, and especially at the EPA level there’s been a rollback of oversight and rules and regulations, so we would love to see more (regulations),” Rubin said. “Like many other states, it (Michigan) has a heavy manufacturing base, and because we have more manufacturing here, we have more chemicals and pollutants that have been released into the environment and into the groundwater and the rivers.”
Public Health student Alextia Armstrong, a member of the Environmental Health Student Association, interned at Ann Arbor’s treatment plant and is confident the discharged water is safe.
“In my opinion, students should worry about PFAS as much as they worry about every other emerging pollutant in any of our resources/environment,” Armstrong wrote in an email to The Daily. “Seeing how hard its (AAWTP’s) staff worked every day to provide a quality source of drinking water to many households in Ann Arbor/Townships, I believe that students shouldn’t be too worried about AAWTP’s ability to come up with and implement effective solutions to this problem. My only recommendation for students to stay safe is to become educated.”
While the situation in Ann Arbor might be under control, State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, believes the problem is statewide and changes are needed. Earlier in September, Rabhi led a group of legislators who penned a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder (R) calling on the state to address high PFAS levels.
“The first piece of legislation I introduced was a bill that, if it had passed, would have made companies that polluted pay to clean up the damages,” Rabhi said. “In Ann Arbor, the town council created a solution, but it was expensive, and that money still came from the taxpayers. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay to clean up a mess they didn’t make.”
Rabhi also stressed far-reaching effects of clean drinking water are not always fully considered. He felt it was unjust many communities in Michigan do not have access to clean drinking water, while the state’s contract with Nestlé Waters North America pumps 576,000 gallons of water per day from Michigan for $200 a year.
“In Michigan, we’ve had schools that have had to be closed down because they didn’t have clean water,” Rabhi said. “Clean water doesn’t just impact drinking, when this happens it impacts education and our public schools … and while all this is happening, Nestlé is allowed to take water, basically for free, from Michigan. I introduced a bill that would tax Nestlé just a small amount, a few cents per gallon, which would go towards funding our public schools. Republicans in Lansing didn’t pass it.”
Universally, most agree concrete standards for the acceptable amount of various chemicals within the water are needed. Steglitz believes there will be regulations sometime in the future, though preferably from a federal, not state, level.
“I think it’s clear that something needs to happen related to these chemicals,” Steglitz said. “Our preference would be the federal government and the EPA take the lead on this, because there are states that are already legislating maximum contaminant limits for these compounds, and they’re all doing it differently … The problem with all states taking their own initiative is it’s really difficult to message to customers: Why are these chemicals more dangerous in one state than another state? We would prefer that they (the federal government) use science to develop a standard that they can apply across the board, and then we can all follow that.”