Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are being found across the country in the drinking water of community water supplies, residential wells, schools and daycare centers. Where is it coming from? Factory waste is a major source. These “forever chemicals” don’t break down, and where PFAS-containing waste is dumped, it spreads. In Segment III of 89.1 WEMU's five-part “Green Room” serieson PFAS, we explore a few of these sites.
David Fair (DF): This is 89.1 WEMU and welcome back to "The Green Room." I'm David Fair and this month we consider with on ongoing series of the PFAS family chemicals. When Michigan began testing for PFAS in water supplies in April of 2018, it soon became a grim game of “Seek and ye shall find.” So far, authorities have found 65 PFAS-contaminated sites in Michigan. In this third installment of a five-part series on PFAS, Barbara Lucas aims a first-person lens on a few of the places in Michigan these "forever" chemicals have been found.
Barbara Lucas (BL): I’m nine years old, standing on the sidewalk, peering through a store window. The object of my desire is a pair of shoes: Hush Puppies. That name… that adorable Basset Hound logo.... I beg my mom, and soon they’re mine.
Cash register rings.
BL: Little did we know that back then, their water repellant properties were thanks to the PFAS chemicals in Scotchguard. Was my wearing them dangerous? Actually, experts say the biggest concern is not so much in the use of PFAS-containing products, but in their making. So where were my Hush Puppies made? Fast forward to 2018.
Entering a store, clerk’s greeting.
BL: I’m in the huge store in Rockford, Michigan that sells Wolverine International’s shoes. After checking it out, I take a spin on my bike down the White Pine trail behind the store, along the picturesque Rogue River.
Sound of bicycle.
BL: Next to the trail is a chain link fence. Ominous signs say: “Warning: Environmental Contamination Investigation on-going at this site. No trespassing.” I ask a pedestrian on the trail about the signs. I walk my bike as he fills me in.
The walker: There was a tannery that was located right here.
BL: He tells me until it was torn down ten years ago, Wolverine’s leather tannery was on this site.
The walker: …they’d haul wherever…
BL: He says back in the day, they spread sludge waste on farm fields and in dumps, and tossed leather trimmings along the river. Probably trimmings from my treasured Hush Puppies, I’m realizing… Not a happy thought, in light of the contamination. For instance, a well here may have the distinction of being the highest PFAS level ever recorded.
Sound of dam.
BL: A short ways down I come upon Rockford’s dam. People are fishing. I hope they don’t plan to eat their catch, considering the PFAS fish advisory. Watching the foam swirling on the surface, I’m thinking how the State of Michigan recently found PFAS in foam here in the hundreds of thousands parts per trillion. 2018 has been another bad year for Michigan’s water. We’ve found, this is far from the only place struggling with a PFAS mess.
Fade in car driving sounds.
BL: All I have to do is tour around the places I’ve lived. Due south on my “2018 PFAS road trip” is rural Kalamazoo where I grew up.
Car door closes.
BL: Standing in front of my elementary and high school buildings, I look towards the since-torn-down electroplating plant. The plant used PFAS as mist suppressants, to protect workers from toxic fumes. Likely they thought they were doing the right thing. But now, at least 42 nearby residential wells have PFAS chemicals in them.
Sound of driving.
BL: I pass our old farmhouse. Just a tad down our road is the huge church which in July 2018 hosted the town hall I’d watched online.
Audio of Town Hall.
BL: About a thousand anxious attendees and government officials and I tried to wrap our minds around the news: the quiet little town of Parchment, AKA “Paper City,” had one of the worst PFAS contaminations in the state. Next stop on my tour: the Parchment Library, to meet with Bob Barber. He’s the former mayor of a nearby town. He lives in the affected area, and he’s mad. Who knew what and when about PFAS isn’t clear. But Barber feels it was obvious to all the stuff the paper mills were dumping was going to cause problems.
Bob Barber: They were all foreseeable, and they all could have been prevented.
BL: He shows me around.
Barber: We might as well start here…
Sound of driving.
BL: As we head a few blocks to the Kalamazoo River, Barber and I reminisce.
Barber: The stench would get so bad it was almost like you could taste it. I don't know if you know what I'm talking about when that smells so overwhelming like that.
BL: Yes, I do know. I can still smell it. As a kid I held my breath when we drove along the river. Making the memory worse is knowing now that to make their laminated products oil and grease-resistant, it was a PFAS chemical that did the trick.
Barber: You’ll see this whole area used to be a paper mill.
Stopping, car door shutting.
BL: He pulls up to what’s left of it. The windows are broken out, there’s graffiti... The gloom here is palpable. A bit further down the road…
Barber: That's the landfill they're talking about leaching.
BL: So what all went in that landfill?
Barber: Anything that they couldn't dump in the river. I mean you know it's just waste from making paper. And I don't know what the regulations were… So why not? Let's just dump it all out back and let somebody else worry about it someday. That day's finally come.
BL: In July 2018, when Parchment drinking water was found to contain PFAS— twenty times the federal advisory level—residents were immediately put on bottled water. Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency.
Sound of driving.
Barber: Now we're coming right up here on North Elementary.
BL: My daughter taught first grade here. To children, I now realize, who may have grown up drinking PFAS in their water.
Sound of brook.
BL: Next stop is Spring Brook, prized by trout fishers, and my “happy place” as a kid. I would spend hours wading in its achingly cold, crystal clean water—now, maybe not so clean. The brook is within the study area for Parchment’s groundwater contamination. Traces of PFAS were found in a well next to the brook.
BL: I say goodbye to Barber and head to the countryside west of Kalamazoo, to the house we rented as newlyweds. It’s near the KL Avenue landfill, which I’m finding out now, was declared a Superfund site the year we moved in. It’s caused a groundwater plume of 1-4 dioxane and other toxins. Knowing that leachate from landfills often contains PFAS, I contact the EPA. They tell me it will be tested for PFAS fall 2019. Luckily, on maps our former house seems clear of the spreading plume. But… still. I get up my nerve.
Knocking on door.
BL: I ask the current renter if she’s ever had her well water tested. Surprisingly, she welcomes me in, and tells me in fact, she has just received a water testing kit. What are the chances…
BL: …that you were home and interested in your water!
Resident: Yes, that is bizarre. I’m very concerned.
BL: She ordered the test kit from the State of Michigan, for $18.
Resident: I hope it’s a comprehensive report.
BL: She shows it to me.
Resident: There’s a box… There’s a little bottle I’ll be putting a sample in…
BL: PFAS is not on the list of what it tests for. The cost for PFAS testing is way more than her $18 kit. And anyway, we agree that so far, she has no reason to suspect it’s in her water. But, she’s worried about neighbors above the plume.
Car driving sounds.
BL: Finally, I head east to Ann Arbor, where live now, and in the 1970’s as well. PFAS has been found in the water here. No telling when it started, since testing only began recently.
Sounds of people enjoying the river.
BL: In spring 2018, on one of my daily dog walks along the Huron, I noticed an unusual amount of foam on the river. I mentioned it to city staff, hoping it had nothing to do with the PFAS-containing foam I’d been hearing about. But unfortunately, we were soon greeted by signs around Argo Pond that said, “Do not to eat the fish.”
BL: Tests had shown high levels of PFAS in fish and foam in numerous places on the Huron. Here’s fisherman Robert Jones.
Robert Jones: There's a lot of big fish in here but you know they're contaminated now. It's too bad. I had a lot of good times on this river. I’m so sad that the water is that polluted that we can't even eat the fish anymore. I’m very sad.
BL: Where did the PFAS in our beloved Huron River come from? Partly, it’s another metal plating plant. And Ann Arbor drinking water is drawn from the Huron River. So to remove PFAS chemicals, the city’s water treatment plant uses granular activated carbon filters, and tests the water every two weeks. Good to know that unlike the bottled water on my grocery shelf, Ann Arbor water is regularly tested and treated for PFAS.
Tap water running.
BL: There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to PFAS. But what I do now know, is it’s been pervasive in my life. And I’m far from alone.
Back to sounds of the river.
BL: Is there anything more you’d like to say?
Jones: Please clean up the river before I die.
BL: In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89.1 WEMU News.
David Fair: Join us for next month's edition of "The Green Room" and we'll bring you the 4th in our five-part series on PFAS chemicals. it will focus on PFAS prevention efforts. The fifth and final part of the series will explore the politics of PFAS. To hear the first two parts in the series visit "The Green Room archive at wemu.org. I'm David Fair and this is 89.1 WEMU-FM and WEMU HD 1, Ypsilanti.
“How Hush Puppies shoes sparked a water contamination crisis,” CNBC August 7, 2019.
"Rockford well may have highest PFAS level in U.S. drinking water,” MLive, Feb 01, 2018.
PFAS-containing foam on the Rogue River, Rockford, Michigan. State of Michigan, June 4, 2018.
“If You Drank Rockford Water Prior to 2000, You May Have Been Exposed to PFAS,” Wolverine Worldwide.
“High levels of PFAS found in 3 drinking-water wells near Kalamazoo,” MLive, July 13, 2018.
City of Parchment and Cooper Township PFAS Water Response Town Hall, Youtube, July 31, 2018.
“Documents show Parchment mill used PFAS created by 3M,” MLive, Aug 16, 2018.
“Landfill plume west of Kalamazoo crosses county line, prompts new wells,” MLive, Aug 10, 2018.
“Residents advised to avoid swallowing foam on Huron River,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Sept 2018.
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