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Issues of the Environment: The Conservancy Initiative works to rid Johnson Creek of 'forever chemicals'

David Drinan, vice president of The Conservancy Initiative
David Drinan
David Drinan, vice president of The Conservancy Initiative


  • According to the State of Michigan, Arbor Hills Landfill is a facility located in Salem Township in Washtenaw County and borders Northville Township in Wayne County. The Arbor Hills Landfill (AHL) is currently owned by Green for Life Environmental. The adjacent landfill gas-to-energy plant is owned by Arbor Hills Energy LLC (AHE), a subsidiary of OPAL Fuels. While municipal solid waste landfills like the AHL, provide a necessary service in Michigan, facilities must operate safely, in accordance with regulations, and as a good neighbor to our citizens. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.michigan.gov/egle/about/organization/air-quality/facility-specific-info/arbor-hills) The landfill is a potential source of PFAS pollution because PFOS foam was used to put out a fire at the landfill in 2016, and there have been other PFAS spills on the site.
  • Concerned that PFAS might be leaching from the landfill into the water near their homes, a grassroots group of neighbors, The Conservancy Initiative, took matters into their own hands. TCI is spotlighting the PFAS impacts to Johnson Creek by the Arbor Hills Landfill by taking random samples of the creek near the landfill and publicly reporting the results. 
  • Johnson Creek is the area’s only cold-water trout stream. PFAS (so-called “forever” chemicals known to cause serious health problems including cancer, thyroid issues, and developmental problems) build up in the environment and bioaccumulate in fish. The majority of the Huron River Watershed has been under a “Do Not Eat Fish” advisory due to PFAS. 
  • In 2022, random sampling by The Conservancy Initiative discovered significantly elevated levels of PFAS following a thunderstorm that caused a leachate collection system for Johnson Creek to fail. In July 2023, the Aug. 2022 violation was resolved with a consent order requiring additional remediation, verification sampling, leachate collection system changes, groundwater wells monitoring, and a small fine.  (Note – No additional sampling of stormwater runoff is required even though the sampling taken during the response indicated the stormwater being discharged to Johnson Creek exceeded water quality standards for PFAS).  
  • The Conservancy Initiative vows to continue privately sampling water near the landfill until an enforced monitoring system is in place. By taking monthly samples, David Drinan says progress can be tracked regarding remediation of the current PFAS and any new discharges. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and today, we're going to look at PFAS contamination in an area waterway and the grassroots effort to address the issue. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. Johnson Creek is a 3.6-mile-long tributary to the middle branch of the Rouge River. It connects in Wayne County's Northville Township. Now, a 2016 fire at Arbor Hills Landfill in Washtenaw County's Salem Township was put out with firefighting foam, which, of course, is a known source of PFAS contamination. Additionally, the landfill had a leachate spill in 2022 that released more PFAS. Testing shows the forever chemicals have made it into Johnson Creek, and a group of residents felt they needed to take matters into their own hands. So, they formed the Conservancy Initiative. It's also known as TCI. With us today is David Drinan. He is vice president of the group. And thank you for making time today, David. I appreciate it.

David Drinan: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: What about this particular situation led to the formation of TCI?

David Drinan: Well, The Conservancy Initiative was actually formed back in 2015, when there was horrendous odors had come from the landfill, and the landfill had submitted applications to expand the landfill. So, the community was actually formed--The Conservancy Initiative--prior to this. And the group has stayed active ever since.

David Fair: What made you believe that there was PFAS contamination and that you might have to take the situation into your own hands?

David Drinan: Well, EGLE, actually, originally reported the PFAS contamination in a groundwater well back in, I believe, it was about March of 2020. About a year later, we were researching the groundwater contamination and submitted a FOIA request to EGLE, and we found there was some testing done of the stormwater detention pond that had gone unnoticed. And a contractor to the landfill had tested the stormwater detention pond and found PFAS in the stormwater retention pond, which regularly discharges into Johnson Creek. And we reported that finding to EGLE, and they subsequently issued a violation notice to the landfill for not reporting this as a noncompliance with their permit and for not taking action to correct it.

David Fair: It was in 2022, I believe, that you decided you needed to do some testing on your own. And what did you find?

David Drinan: Well, actually, the testing on our own was just done recently, you know, after we had been urging EGLE to require the landfill to test their stormwater discharge into Johnson Creek for the past couple of years. We finally went out and gained access to Johnson Creek several hundred feet, or maybe even 100 yards away from the landfill, on private property. And we sampled the creek on our own, and we found PFAS well above the Michigan's water quality standards for surface water.

David Fair: And I assume you then reported those findings to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy?

David Drinan: You know, we made them public on our website. And yes, EGLE is aware of it.

David Fair: The Arbor Hills landfill is owned by Green for Life Environmental. Has it responded to your concerns or to the making public the result of your testing, or is it choosing to work exclusively with EGLE?

David Drinan: They have not responded to our concerns, and they've chosen to work exclusively with EGLE.

David Fair: So, transparency continues to be an issue.

David Drinan: That's right.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment and our conversation with David Drinan continues. David is vice president of The Conservancy initiative, which is taking on people's contamination of Johnson Creek that's emanating from the Arbor Hills Landfill in Salem Township. In the consent order agreement that Green for Life Environmental reached with EGLE, is there monitoring and remediation obligation?

David Drinan: There's not any monitoring obligations as of yet. EGLE is promising that they will negotiate a consent order that will require monitoring and require remediation that'll eliminate the discharges. But it's now been two years since we originally came across the PFAS that was being discharged to Johnson Creek. So, that's when we took matters into our own hands and started our own sampling program.

David Fair: Well, again, PFAS is called "forever chemicals" for a reason. They do not biodegrade and not only impact the water and soil, but wildlife and habitat as well. Have you discovered any evidence of adverse impact as of yet?

David Drinan: Well, we haven't personally, but the Ecology Center teamed up with the Friends of the Rouge recently, and they did a study of fish that were harvested or caught from local waterways. And there was a fish caught from Johnson Creek in the area of Fish Hatchery Park in downtown Northville, which is directly downstream of the landfill. And it had an alarming level of PFAS that was found in the fish. And anyone familiar with the Northville area and Johnson Creek would know that there really is no other industry in the area of Johnson Creek besides this landfill.

David Fair: I find it rather interesting that while the PFAS issue is playing out, Johnson Creek is in the midst of a restoration project entirely separate from this issue. But with money from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, work is underway to not only deal with significant bank erosion but to increase the number and variety of native fish, mussels and aquatic bugs and quality of wildlife habitat. Might PFAS contamination, now two years in without remediation, offset some of those goals and expectations?

David Drinan: Well, we certainly hope not, but that's our concern. It seems like we're spending money to restore the creek--you know, money coming out of one pocket while we have a large corporation that the rules and regulations aren't being enforced vigorously enough. And they're polluting the river or creek upstream of where we're restoring it.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with The Conservancy Initiative's David Drinan on 891 WEMU's Issues of the Environment. What response, if any, have you gotten from local and state elected officials in trying to pursue a more robust course of testing and remediation?

David Drinan: They've been very helpful. As a matter of fact, the township and the city--there's both a township of Northville and a city of Northville--have also sent similar letters. And our last tact--we haven't gotten to that yet--is to ask the landfill directly to begin sampling their stormwater discharge and bypassing EGLE. They work hand--in-hand with us, both the township in the city. And our local Senator, Senator Rosemary Bayer, we've had a meeting with her, and she's been very supportive also. And we're hopeful that she'll be able to help us through this.

David Fair: There are environmental concerns, of course, public health concerns with PFAS contamination. Do you also have concerns about impact on property values for those who live up the creek?

David Drinan: Oh, certainly. Yeah. Yes, certainly. And this is at a time when the city of Northville is going to be going through a large reconstruction project where they're going to be daylighting and building a riverwalk. They're going to be daylighting the Rouge River through the downtown Northville and making it a focal point of their Northville Downs project and renovation of downtown Northville. So, it's very important that we protect Johnson Creek for the future of Northville.

David Fair: We know that PFAS is a significant issue for both the Rouge River and Huron River watersheds. Johnson Creek is relatively small, but I think I would be correct in surmising that, without more proactive measures, its impact could be quite large environmentally. But you're also pointing out that this could have economic impacts that last well into the future. ]

David Drinan: Yes, in Johnson Creek is the only cold-water trout stream in the area. Some of the restoration efforts that took place recently in Fish Hatchery Park, local anglers are reporting that they're catching brown trout in the area of Fish Hatchery Park regularly. So, the restorations are being successful, and we're hoping that the future restorations are going to return some of the wildlife to the area.

David Fair: And, again, the Huron River, the entire span of the river, has a "do not eat fish" advisory, and that is certainly a possibility on the only cold-water trout stream. What comes next, David? What is the very next step that TCI will take?

David Drinan: Well, as I mentioned, we have requested directly to the landfill that it seems like the right thing to do. And, hopefully, they'll be a good corporate citizen. And we're asking them to voluntarily start sampling their discharges to the river and speed up the remediation of their site to end the past discharges. But we are looking into continuing our sampling program and to spotlight the issue and increase community involvement.

David Fair: What level of optimism do you have at gaining cooperation from the operators of the Arbor Hills Landfill?

David Drinan: Maybe I could get back with you in a few weeks and let you know.

David Fair: I would be glad to listen and glad to hear and glad to share that information with all who are listening. Thank you so much for your time and your insights today, David. I appreciate it.

David Drinan: Okay. Thank you for having me.

David Fair: That is David Drinan, vice president of The Conservancy Initiative, and he's been our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information on the PFAS contamination of Johnson Creek and the work of TCI, visit our web site at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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