State files lawsuit against companies who allegedly allowed toxic PFAS chemicals in water

Wednesday, January 22, 2020 - 9:21pm

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Design by Aya Salim

Almost six years after a switch in water supply by city officials led to the Flint Water Crisis, Michigan has been facing another man-made water crisis affecting approximately 1.9 million Michiganders. On Jan. 14, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a lawsuit against 17 water companies for damages to the state of Michigan, alleging these companies knowingly allowed PFAS into drinking water.

Similar to the lead that fueled the Flint Water Crisis, the toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — collectively known as PFAS — have lasting health consequences and are linked to numerous health diseases, including cancer. 

PFAS chemicals are human-made chemicals that are resistant to grease, oil, water and heat and have therefore been used in a wide range of consumer products. PFAS have also been dubbed “forever chemicals” as they do not break down or biodegrade over time but instead accumulate in the environment. The impact of their continued use since the 1940s means that over time, PFAS levels from past and current uses can result in increasing levels of environmental contamination. 

The lawsuit filed by the attorney general argues the defendants knew or should have known that PFAS persists in the environment and would build up in animals and humans exposed to the chemical. Additionally, the lawsuit also notes that the Environmental Protection Agency concluded there is an association between exposure to PFAS and a variety of health complications including thyroid disorders, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, as well as testicular and kidney cancer. 

The state names 17 defendants in the lawsuit and alleges they deliberately concealed the dangers of PFAS, withheld scientific evidence and “intentionally” sold, distributed, released, transported, supplied and arranged for disposal or treatment into areas affecting Michigan’s natural resources and property. Additionally, it asserts the companies handled and used PFAS and PFAS-containing materials in Michigan in a way they knew would contaminate natural resources and expose Michigan residents to harm. 

Three of these companies named in the lawsuit — 3M, DuPont and Chemours — have been involved in several other lawsuits since 2016. In February 2017, DuPont and its spin-off, Chemours, settled a lawsuit with more than 3,500 residents in Ohio and West Virginia. While denying any wrongdoing, they agreed to pay $671 million for polluting an area around a manufacturing plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Ann Arbor is now one of the 11,000 sites in Michigan where the drinking water has been contaminated with PFAS chemicals. The city of Ann Arbor began tracking the PFAS content in the city’s drinking water in March 2018 and found five types of PFAS in Ann Arbor’s treated drinking water and two other types in the river water.

Following new carbon filters at the water treatment plant, PFAS levels lowered to single-digits in the spring of 2019. However, in October of 2019, PFAS levels increased by more than tenfold, jumping to 25-29 ppt. The city stated that causes for this increase are still unknown. 

A statement released by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich. applauds Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel for holding polluters accountable, as Dingell claims Michigan was ground zero for PFAS contamination.

“The most troubling thing I have learned through all of this is that the manufacturing companies knew about the harms of PFAS — and even tracked it in the blood of employees — while the EPA has completely abandoned its responsibility to act swiftly and comprehensively to respond,” Dingell said. “This is wrong and they must be held accountable.”

Dingell is also the lead author of the PFAS Action Act, a bipartisan bill cosponsored by U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich. The bill would provide protections for impacted communities by requiring the EPA to limit human exposure and set a drinking water standard for PFAS that protects public health. The bill was passed in the House of Representatives on Jan. 10 with bipartisan support.

In Upton’s district, the city of Parchment was one of the first cities of PFAS contamination. As one of the original cosponsors, Upton released a statement detailing the importance of protecting Americans from PFAS contamination. 

“This legislation would designate PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances and allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites in Michigan and across the country,” Upton said. “Parchment made it perfectly clear that we need an all-hands-on deck to protect our families, drinking water, and environment, and I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address this challenge across the nation.”

Public Policy senior Claire Galligan previously worked in Kildee’s office and spoke about her frustration with the continued PFAS contamination. She said she was happy to hear about the bipartisan legislation.

“It’s extremely disappointing to hear that water companies have knowingly contaminated Michigan’s water with PFAS,” Galligan said. “I think there’s definitely a strong need for legislation to protect Michigan’s water from contamination, and hopefully it will receive strong bipartisan support considering this impacts so many districts in Michigan.”

Reporter Julia Fanzeres can be reached at julfan@umich.edu.