This blog post was originally published September 1st in the Huron River Report, Fall 2021.

Some days, protecting our water and waterways feels like an uphill battle. The problems seem daunting and the solutions unachievable. In August of 2020, Michigan took action to protect Michiganders from seven PFAS chemicals being found in groundwater and surface waters throughout the state, including in the Huron River. We now live with a do-not-eat fish advisory that has been in place since 2018 and will remain for some time. The City of Ann Arbor has had to make significant investments in drinking water treatment to ensure safe drinking water for its residents. The human health risks are many, and we are only beginning to understand the long-term impacts of these forever chemicals on wildlife and ecosystem health.

What HRWC is doing about PFAS

HRWC continues to reach out to community members about the status of the contamination, the fish and foam advisories, and opportunities to support state-level action to prevent further contamination here and elsewhere. This summer, we worked with the Department of Health and Human Services to deploy “Riverwalkers”—people who patrol parks and favorite fishing spots to remind anglers of the fish advisory. We publish blogs and social media posts to keep folks safe. We participate in the State’s Citizen’s Advisory Workgroup. We liaise regularly with EGLE staff in charge of testing waters in the Huron River, creating the two-way conversation necessary to develop a solid monitoring program and ensure timely exchange of new information. We seek opportunities in the press to educate the public on the issues and push for prudence by state and federal legislators and regulators.

Michigan PFAS in groundwater cleanup standards

As I write this, the State is working to establish permanent PFAS groundwater cleanup standards based on the drinking water standards. Currently, the drinking water standards are being used as temporary levels by default. Establishing permanent regulations is a critical next step that will help keep the 25% of Michigan households that rely on municipal groundwater for their drinking water, safe. Since private residential wells are not protected by state municipal drinking water standards, groundwater cleanup standards are often the only line of defense for private well owners.

Dedicated advocates mobilize to defend

PFAS pollution has mobilized an army of advocates—affected citizens, scientists, environmental organizations, drinking water providers and public health professionals. We are many, we are organized and we are fighting. We are making progress.

In April, 3M—a chemical manufacturing giant—sued the State of Michigan for its PFAS regulations, citing a “rushed and invalid regulatory process.” 3M is the manufacturer of ScotchGard which contains PFAS chemicals. This is the same company that a Detroit Free Press investigation (May 9, 2019) found to be aware of and hiding the dangers of PFAS for decades. Frequently when a corporation stands to lose, they sue. Thanks to an imbalance in financial resources, they often come out on top. Even if they don’t, they effectively buy themselves years, if not decades, to continue their business as usual or to gently adapt to a new future, all at a cost to public health and the environment. It may be the most infuriating aspect of this line of work.

In response, several heavy hitters have joined forces for an early intervention to defend Michigan’s PFAS regulations. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Ecology Center, Environmental Law and Policy Center, For the Love of Water, Michigan Environmental Council, Sierra Club, PFAS Alliance, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, and HRWC submitted an amicus brief supporting the State’s PFAS drinking water standards. The goal of the brief is to describe how PFAS has affected our communities and to make clear to the court how important these protections are for the well-being of Michiganders. This brief was denied and will not be considered in the court’s decision about whether or not to dismiss the case.

It is yet another David and Goliath story. I find comfort in that list of names above; the dedicated, relentless advocates for a better world, that we fight alongside, sharing expertise, knowledge, strategy and strength. While the opponents can seem formidable and the solutions complex and precarious, I feel grateful to our partners and derive strength from our numbers, our passion and our expertise. The cause is righteous. And we will continue to advocate for stronger protections from PFAS until we achieve our goals. We will never relinquish. We will never give up. Who’s with me?

This blog post was originally published September 1st in the Huron River Report, Fall 2021.