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Communities across the country are increasingly being impacted by PFAS, an acronym that stands for Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are a class of more than 4,700 toxic chemicals found in a variety of industrial products such as water-resistant fabrics, paints, and firefighting foams. In recent years, PFAS contamination has become a priority issue for Michigan LCV and led to the creation of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network (GLPAN), a coalition of PFAS-impacted citizens advocating for action to address the PFAS crisis. 

Concentrated PFAS chemicals collect to look like pillowy, toxic foam on shorelines. 

Often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because of how long they take to break down, high levels of PFAS chemicals have been found in the drinking water of more than 2 million Michiganders. PFAS chemicals are linked to an array of health problems such as cancer, heart disease and reproductive complications. Prominent examples of PFAS hot spots in Michigan demonstrate the urgent need to stop the spread of toxic pollution but the contamination cleanup process can be frustratingly long and complex, as you’ll read below.

Action in Rockford

Across Michigan, communities have been grappling with toxic PFAS contamination stemming from industrial facilities. One of these communities is Rockford, MI, just outside Grand Rapids, where shoe manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide is responsible for widespread PFAS contamination from its former tannery. Years of dumping the toxic chemicals have contaminated the drinking water for surrounding communities, leading to some of the highest concentrations of PFAS contamination in Michigan. 

Michigan LCV’s Jace Bylenga (center, back) and Abigail Barker (right) protesting last year with GLPAN Co-Chair Sandy Wynn-Stelt (center) and Rockford residents impacted by PFAS. 

In 2020, a federal judge ordered Wolverine Worldwide to pay more than $55 million to cover the cost of municipal drinking water for impacted residents, as well as remediation costs for its contamination. Wolverine was supposed to begin cleaning up the contamination this fall, but has repeatedly delayed the process.

Recently, Wolverine Worldwide proposed a new PFAS clean up plan for the contamination in Rockford, but the plan fails to stop the flow of PFAS into the Rogue River, a critical water vein that runs into the Grand River, and eventually Lake Michigan. Following the lead from community advocates and experts in the Wolverine Community Advisory Group, Michigan LCV was proud to help generate 257 messages to EGLE during a recent comment period calling for a stronger and faster cleanup plan from Wolverine Worldwide.

Action in Oscoda

Another community that continues to be a PFAS hotspot is Oscoda, MI, on the shores of Lake Huron, where the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base is the source of PFAS chemicals that have contaminated the community’s drinking water. Despite Wurtsmith’s status as the first former military site to begin the PFAS discovery and cleanup process, the Air Force has not accepted  full responsibility for the impact to veterans and the people of Oscoda and continues to deny, deflect, downplay, and delay action.  

PFAS activists Cathy Wusterbarth of NOW Oscoda and GLPAN and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Craig Minor – who was stationed at the former Wurtsmith base – testified at a Senate oversight hearing last year. 

Next Wednesday, top officials from the Air Force will be in Oscoda for important technical discussions and community Restoration Advisory Board meetings. Ahead of the meeting, Need Our Water (NOW) Oscoda will hold a rally and press conference to demand action from the Air Force on PFAS clean up. After four Interim Remedial Actions (IRAs) were submitted to the Restoration Advisory Board last fall, the Air Force has done nothing to implement the plans that would help immediately to clean up the contamination. 

Federal Action on PFAS 

Despite the EPA data showing that virtually any trace amount of certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water is unsafe, the federal government has not moved with enough urgency to tackle this major crisis. To this day, there is no federal standard for PFAS in drinking water (Michigan does have standards for drinking water and surface water).

PFAS foam collecting along a river bank in Michigan. 

The Biden administration needs to prioritize strong action on PFAS , which is why Michigan LCV joined a recent letter with over 100 community, environmental, and health groups urging the Biden administration to swiftly propose standards for drinking water (the EPA previously committed to taking this step by fall 2022). 

We are fortunate to have state-level officials leading the way. For instance, on the heels of Attorney General Dana Nessel announcing a major settlement in her first PFAS case, the Attorney General joined AGs from 15 other states (and New York City and Washington, D.C.) on a letter calling on EPA to quickly finalize a proposal to add lower limits of PFAS to the critical Toxic Inventory Release program. With a massive challenge like PFAS contamination, we need decision-makers at all levels as engaged as possible, and making sure that happens is our job as advocates.