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Another Case of Contaminated Drinking Water in Michigan

Slide from a September 12, 2017 town hall meeting showing Wolverine's dumping ground in Belmont, Michigan and the neighborhoods potentially affected by leached toxins in well water. Image: Plainfield Charter Township Department of Public Services 

As the nation continues to focus on the situation in Flint, another case of contaminated drinking water has emerged in Michigan, this time in a town just north of Grand Rapids. Wolverine World Wide, a shoe company known for inventing Hush Puppies, dumped industrial waste containing toxic perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in Belmont throughout the 1960s. PFCs dissolve in water and don’t degrade easily, allowing them to slowly leach their way into groundwater. In wells nearby the dump, tested samples in July reported up to 540 times the level of PFCs deemed safe by the EPA. Some residents who relied on this well water reported suffering from thyroid problems, a health effect tied to PFC exposure according to several scientific studies. County public health officials are now funding research to detect cancer clusters in affected neighborhoods.

The story of Belmont is one that has been repeated in countless communities exposed to toxic contamination in the last half century. They are among the reasons why state and federal governments adopted hazardous waste cleanup laws in the 1970s and 1980s – the most important of them being the federal Superfund law, adopted in 1980.

Today, however, the ability of state and federal officials to respond to problems like those in Belmont is at risk. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality offloaded its investigation to Wolverine early on due to budget constraints. “The state couldn’t possibly afford to do this,” one DEQ official said. “Our funds are pretty much out for response activities like this.” At the federal level, as we’ve documented in a series of recent reports, proposed cuts to the U.S. EPA budget threaten to further reduce funding to state agencies and slow the cleanup of dangerous sites.

Those cuts could also undermine the EPA’s ability to address the PFC issue nationwide. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, 94 public water systems in 27 states tested positive for PFOA, a type of PFC used to manufacture Teflon, mostly used as a nonstick coat on pots and pans. In Vermont, PFOA from an old Teflon factory in Bennington contaminated nearby wells throughout the 20th century, only to be discovered last year. Though chemical giants like DuPont voluntarily phased out the use of PFOA as early as 2013, removing the ingredient in stain-resistant carpets, firefighting foam and microwave popcorn bags, old manufacturing towns continue to deal with PFOA’s toxic legacy.

The EPA currently mandates that water samples be tested for PFOA at least every five years, but there are no laws regulating its environmental presence. It was on the EPA’s priority list of 116 chemicals to regulate in 2009, but didn’t make the cut (the EPA is only required to review five of the chemicals on this list which is supposed to come out every five years under the Safe Drinking Water Act). On the most recent priority list in 2016, PFOA was listed again; the EPA’s review is still ongoing. The most recent action taken by the agency on PFCs was in 2016, with the release of a report confirming its toxicity and setting a non-enforceable “health advisory warning.”

Meanwhile, residents of Belmont are waiting to see what will happen with their community and their health. To date, Wolverine has handed out $50 gift cards, free bottled water and kitchen sink filters to affected neighbors after testing wells for contamination. Though filtration systems and bottled water are important short-term fixes, PFCs persist in the body by accumulating in the blood.

High levels of PFOA have been linked to pregnancy complications and liver damage, along with thyroid, kidney and testicular cancer. Left to self-regulate, DuPont covered up their research on PFOA and its harmful effects for decades. A strong, well-funded EPA is crucial if we want to clean up the toxic hazards of our past and prevent incidents like these. We need an agency with the resources to evaluate new chemicals before they can poison our water, for decades.