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No Clear Path Forward in Addressing Michigan's PFAS Contamination Policy

Michigan’s state government is looking to understand the full impact of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, but the effort may run into significant obstacles as the state moves to address the issue.

In Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State speech on Feb. 12, she said “this problem may not have commanded the same kind of national attention as the situation in Flint. But it is just as urgent.”

PFAS chemicals are group of man-made chemicals used in a variety of industries and commonly found in fire retardants, furniture and cookware. A 2016 study from Harvard University found the drinking water of more than 16 million Americans is contaminated with PFAS chemicals.

That includes the drinking water of more than 70 Michigan municipalities, along with rivers and lakes throughout the state, rendering tap water hazardous to drink and wild game unsafe to eat.

Michigan currently follows federal contamination standards for PFAS in drinking water, which is 70 parts per trillion. Numerous experts have argued that level may be too high. Even a federal study suggested the level was inadequate.

A part per trillion is a measure of a substance in every part per trillion of, in this case, water.

But moving below that federally-set level, thanks to a new law enacted during the Michigan Legislature’s “lame duck” session, will be significantly more difficult. The “no stricter than federal” law requires that for an agency to adopt a more stringent toxicity standard. The agency’s director must approve the rule and “a statement of the specific facts that establish the clear and convincing need to adopt the more stringent rule and an explanation of the exceptional circumstances that necessitate the more stringent standard.”

That’s the rub if the intent is to more strictly regulate PFAS. The science on the toxicity of these chemicals is not yet fully developed or understood. And without that information environmental regulators could struggle to prevent the information necessary to support an even more strict standard.

State environmental officials will not receive assistance from their federal counterparts anytime soon, either. Two days after Whitmer’s speech, the Environmental Protection Agency finally released its long-awaited action plan for PFAS chemicals, originally promised more than a year ago, but the document provided no steps, other than a promise to begin the lengthy process of assessing the chemical anew by the end of the year. Environmental advocates have accused the agency of slow-walking the assessment. Importantly for Michigan, it means the information that emerges from that process likely won’t be available for quite some time.

That may be why the Governor’s third executive order of her administration, recertifying the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team formed by her predecessor Rick Snyder, does not specifically call for a recommendation for a new standard. Instead, it asks the team recommend changes in Michigan law. One of the caveats of the new law allows the state to implement more stringent standards if they are made via statute, meaning the Legislature may need to pass a new bill.

Simon Schuster is a Masters of Public Policy student at Michigan State University and an IPPSR Graduate Policy Fellow.