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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: Addressing PFAS contaminating our waters, fertilizers and food supply

Tony Spaniola
Tony Spaniola
Need Our Water
Tony Spaniola


Anthony ‘Tony’ Spaniola is a Detroit area attorney who became a leading national PFAS advocate after learning that his family’s lake home in Oscoda is impacted by PFAS contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base – the first reported PFAS site in Michigan and the first reported U.S. military PFAS site in the world.

With his neighbors in Oscoda, Spaniola co-founded Need Our Water (NOW) in 2017 and has helped it become one of the nation’s preeminent PFAS community action groups. Building on that experience, he co-founded and co-chairs the recently formed Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, and he serves on the Leadership Team of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, comprised of community-based PFAS groups throughout the country.

Spaniola was among the first to bring the PFAS crisis to the attention of candidates and elected officials in Michigan. He was involved in drafting the first PFAS legislation introduced in the Michigan Legislature, and he is among those credited by Congressman Dan Kildee in suggesting the concept that led to the creation of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force. He served as a PFAS policy advisor to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in her 2018 election campaign and he continues to work closely with elected officials in Michigan and nationally on PFAS policy matters.

Spaniola has delivered PFAS presentations at colleges and universities across the country and is frequently quoted in state and national media coverage of PFAS issues. In 2019, he was the only non-scientist to address the National Academy of Sciences at its inaugural PFAS Workshop in Washington, D.C. He has appeared in three PFAS film documentaries and served as a consultant to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Sara Ganim on her critically-acclaimed film, “No Defense: The U.S. Military’s War On Water.”


Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a Bachelors Degree and two ensuing Masters Degrees in Social Work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'


Michigan League of Conservation Voters

NOW (Need Our Water)

Great Lakes PFAS Action Network


David Fair: It is said that time flies. Not always true, but it seems like the third month of the year has come around rather quickly. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to 891 WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. As spring approaches, I wish we had a cheerier topic to cover for you, but alas, we do not. PFAS contamination has raised its ugly head again. My content partner and co-host for First Friday is Lisa Wozniak. She serves as executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And regardless of topic, Lisa, it's always good to be with you, and I look for ways forward through some of these difficult topics the rest of the year.

Lisa Wozniak: Well, it's always a pleasure to be here, Dave. And as challenging as some of our topics are, including today's, we always have great guests who not only expand our thinking but truly inspire us. And today is an excellent example. Our guest is Tony Spaniola, the co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network.

David Fair: Well, welcome back to WEMU, Tony.

Tony Spaniola: Thank you. Great to be here.

David Fair: Tony is an attorney based in Troy, who's been a leading activist on PFAS contamination in Michigan. He's helped form Need Our Water--NOW, Oscoda--as well as the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. He began getting involved in activism after the forever chemicals were discovered in the water in Oscoda stemming from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. And don't think it's isolated. Remember, we still have a do not eat fish advisory for the Huron River right here because of PFAS contamination. So, Tony, this has become a major and significant portion of your life.

Tony Spaniola: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's growing all the time.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Tony, they've mentioned your connection specifically to Oscoda. And so, for our listeners, it would be great to hear from you about how you got involved in taking action on PFAS and why this issue is so important not only to you and the people of Oscoda, but for all of us, frankly.

Tony Spaniola: Sure. I got involved, basically, because my family received a notice. We have a home on Van Etten Lake in Oscoda up north. We received a notice in 2016 saying you shouldn't drink your water because it's potentially contaminated from the PFAS from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. And what we learned quickly is that it impacts not only Oscoda, Oscoda happened to be the first place in Michigan at which PFAS was discovered. But now we have contaminated sites all over the state. We know that PFAS in the drinking water is serving about two million people, and we have over 11,000 suspected PFAS sites. So it's a huge issue in Michigan and nationwide.

David Fair: In the past few weeks, Tony, we saw reports a consumption advisory was issued for beef processed from a farm in Livingston County because of high levels of PFAS in the meat. How does that happen? How does PFAS get into the beef?

Tony Spaniola: Well, in this instance, it starts from a wastewater treatment plant in Wixom and from the wastewater treatment plant, there are things called biosolids, which is essentially the human waste sludge that's left after processing, doing the processing, the wastewater treatment plant that is land supplied and used as fertilizer. In this particular case, at a farm in Livingston County that grew corn, the corn was contaminated. Then the corn was fed to the cattle, and the meats were contaminated as a result. So, it's a whole chain of events. And I think a lot of people are surprised to hear that waste from wastewater treatment plants is used as fertilizer, but it's a very widespread practice in our state. I think over 7,000 farms actually do that.

Lisa Wozniak: Well, that's exactly where I was going to go next, Tony. I mean, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has said that this is a unique incident. But as you said, we know that the use of biosolids in agriculture has taken place for years and involves thousands of farms. And so, my question is how concerned should we be about PFAS contamination from other food sources?

Tony Spaniola: I think we need to be really concerned. And obviously, there's more information that needs to be gathered. And I do think that that EGLE is doing a good job of gathering data. I don't necessarily agree with the characterization. When you look at what's happening here in Michigan, and I want to be really clear because EGLE does not have a lot of legal authority because we're in kind of the Wild West in this situation. But, at this point in time, biosolids containing PFAS of up to 150,000 parts per trillion are allowed to be applied on farms in Michigan. That, to me, is a staggeringly high number when you consider that drinking water standards are in the range of six to 15 to 18 parts per trillion. And it's even more sobering when you look at what's happened in the state of Maine, which has adopted it. Maine has really taken the lead on this issue. In Maine, the Maine numbers are 60 times lower for thresholds for PFOA and 29 times lower for PFOS. So, the numbers that are going on are still pretty high, and we don't really have a lot of information in terms of what's showing up on the farms in terms of the land, what's showing up in the actual products, and what's showing up, for example, in the residual, like the cattle and the poultry, who may be eating the crop from the farm. So, this has the potential to be a pretty big issue. And I think that it's a tough one because farming is such an important industry in our state. It's obviously the backbone for all of us. And so, the farmers aren't doing anything wrong necessarily, and the consumers aren't doing anything wrong. But we need to do something to protect both of us, the farmers and the consumers who consume the products.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment continues. I'm alongside of my co-host Lisa Wozniak, the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And our guest today is Tony Spaniola, the co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. So as we've identified problems or perhaps standards aren't where they should be in Michigan, as we look at remedies, is the solution legislative? Is it corporate? Is it all of the above?

Tony Spaniola: Yeah, I think it's probably all of the above. And I think that, in the short term, if somebody were asking me what I think should be done, I think from a policy standpoint, there needs to be a program, I think, set up to curtail the use of biosolids entirely. And, at the same time, to indemnify and take care of the farmers in this situation because they've been relying on this as a source of fertilizer for a long time and also taking a look at what's actually happened again to their products and to their livestock and to their farms, because this isn't something that's just started happening. It's been going on for a long, long, long time. And so, I think that there needs to be that kind of approach short term. And then I think in the bigger picture, we really have to look at getting PFAS out of our product chain of consumption. You know, we need to ban the use of the chemicals except in the most essential purposes, and that's what's been done in the European Union. It's what we really need to do from a logical, sensible perspective here in Michigan and in the United States.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Tony, there have been ongoing stories about the battle with the U.S. Air Force in terms of the contamination it caused in the former, Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. What is the latest there, and what is the community calling for at this point?

Tony Spaniola: Well, there's, you know, it seems like we take, sometimes, we make one step forward, and now it appears we're in the two step back mode. The latest developments are, first off, that the Air Force is now retrenched, and it has announced that it has no data indicating that the veterans and their families who lived and served on that base for years and years--they have no evidence that they were exposed to high levels of PFAS in drinking water, which we know is false. There are scientific studies that have been done by the state of Michigan and the person who did those, Bob Delaney, who is a very reasoned and careful man, has called the Air Force's statement a flat-out lie. The Air Force is doubling down. The Air Force also has moved to implement a remedial investigation work plan without any public input. Again, in the face of continuing concerns and expressions of criticism from the community, saying, "Hey, talk to us." They have left out, as best we can tell, large parts of the community from that investigation. So, they have done a few things to start some minor cleanups on parts of the base. But in the big picture, the problem continues, and it's a big fight. As I've said, and a lot of us in Oscoda say, we have to fight for pretty much every inch of ground that that we need to get cleaned up. And it's taking a long, long time.

David Fair: As we work towards accountability and remediation, should there also be greater investment in the less dangerous alternatives to these chemicals and the legislative mandates that would not only phase them out but support the switch away from fossil fuels?

Tony Spaniola: Oh, absolutely. And I think that that's one of the bright spots out there. There is an, I think, an economic incentive for companies to develop alternatives. Our governor has taken a leadership role in this and has directed the state of Michigan agencies to stop--where they can--to stop procuring PFAS-contained products. President Biden has issued a similar order at the federal level. So, yeah, all those things, David. This requires action at every phase and at every stage.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Tony, you recently helped launch the new coalition that's called the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. And I think it's important to note that there are so many organizations across the state working on a variety of issues. Why was it important to start this one?

Tony Spaniola: Well, I think it was...I think it's critically important because we need to have an organization that's a voice for impacted people and impacted communities. What has struck me in my time and my involvement in this is that there are a lot of advocates. And as a lawyer, I'm an advocate. But the people who have to live with these problems, day in and day out, people like me now in Oscoda, you know, we understand this issue in a very different way. And, in the past, we've been the last people who get listened to or heard in these discussions, and we really should be at the forefront of those discussions. And so, that's why forming this organization, that's kind of community led and community driven with critical help from important partners, Lisa, like the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, I think helps to lift up that voice and also bring together diverse voices from around the state to speak as one. And that makes us a whole lot more powerful and, I think, a lot more able to get things done. So I'm really, really excited.

David Fair: And I think that's a great place to end for today, understanding that we will need to have conversations in the future. Thank you so much for the time, Tony.

Tony Spaniola: Thank you.

David Fair: That is Tony Spaniola, PFAS expert and activist. For more on Tony and the work he's doing on a variety of fronts, check our website at WEMU dot org. And, Lisa, we'll see you in April.

Lisa Wozniak: As always, David, I look forward to it. Thanks so much.

David Fair: And that is Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and my co-host for WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair, and this is 891 WEMU FM and HD One Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
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