PFAS legislation stalls in committee, no action likely until the new year

Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch is the Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.PNG

The House Committee on Natural Resources heard testimony Wednesday during a public meeting regarding per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) concerns and contamination.

Led by Republican Chairman Rep. Gary Howell of North Branch, the committee listened to many of the state partners of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, or MPART. Headed by Carol Isaacs, the team was created by Gov. Rick Snyder to fund PFAS testing in the state and further research into potential widespread contamination.

"We would need to begin to understand the issue in the broadest possible sense,” Howell said to open the hearing.

During the meeting, Department of Health and Human Services, Natural Resources, Agriculture and the State Fire Marshall all provided insight into PFAS exposure.

These PFAS chemicals have been at the center of several investigations around Michigan as to companies potentially polluting ground water supplies across the state. Wolverine Worldwide in Rockford is one company the EPA is looking at, as is the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. The chemicals are labeled “lifelong chemicals” as they do not break down quickly, and stay in the human body for many years.

Dr. Eden Wells, Chief Medical Executive with MDHHS, talked about potential health impacts PFAS chemicals can have on humans. She explained there has not been a health study done nationally yet so it is difficult to draw conclusions between PFAS exposure and negative health impacts.

However, Wells said blood testing can be used to determine the level of PFAS exposure in the body at that point in time. But, she added that blood testing should not be used for drawing conclusions about a person’s health.

The committee also heard about the deer that was found Clark’s Marsh near Oscoda with PFAS in its system that prompted the ‘do not eat’ order as well as the warning not to eat fish from the Huron River, due to high levels of PFAS.

Isaacs touted the work of MPART and said through testing, Parchment’s water supply was found to have PFAS levels significantly above the EPA’s suggestion of 70 parts per trillion, and how elevated levels were discovered in a Grand Haven Elementary School’s water supply.

While none of the testimony was new to anyone following PFAS unfold in Michigan, Howell let the testimony continue for an hour, leaving just under five minutes for Representatives on the panel to ask questions.

Vice Chairman of the Committee, Rep. Bill Sowerby, D-Clinton Township, asked Howell to at least schedule another hearing next week to continue the conversation. That didn’t happen and sparked some frustration.

“I thank Chairman Howell for holding this hearing, but he should also have allowed time to, for us, to ask the tough questions that we had regarding this issue to the state department heads,” Sowerby said after the meeting.

While several bills have been introduced in the legislature over the last year to deal with PFAS chemicals in some way, no action was taken by the committee Wednesday.

“Myself and my colleagues in the Democratic Caucus have been asking for hearings like this for months,” said Sowerby.

With two weeks left in the Legislature, and hundreds of bills flying through, Howell said there was a simple answer to the question of why hold a hearing now, when now action was going to be taken on bills.

“I had an opening where I had an hour and I wanted to get started,” Howell said.

In the same breath, he added that the lame-duck session was busy and now was “not a good time for careful deliberation.”

“As you know, we have two weeks left of lame duck, with an unbelievable number of bills coming at us from all directions,” he said.

The lame-duck session and the amount of bills seemed to be his reasoning for putting off voting on legislation.

“I want to make sure that we do this outside of political intensity and focused on science,” Howell said.

One topic floating to the top was the issue of an enforceable drinking water standard. Michigan currently uses EPA’s recommendation of 70 parts per trillion of PFAS in drinking water is acceptable.

There has been a push to raise that bar and create a standard of 5 ppt for drinking water. Democratic Rep. Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids introduced legislation to do just that in December 2017. Her bill never got a committee hearing, and did not get heard during this committee either.

“We need to know what the proper safe levels are, for the public. Is 70 parts per trillion adequate, should it be lower,” Sowerby rhetorically asked following the hearing.

Howell said he understands the complexity and seriousness of PFAS chemicals in Michigan, but is not ready to make any decisions on a drinking water standard that is different from what the EPA is suggesting.

“But I need again, some scientific basis to pick a standard, I’m not going to pick a standard out of thin air, I’m going to be very careful to be sure that we have adequate scientific testimony, adequate scientific basis and studies to pick an intelligent standard,” he said.

There is a Harvard study from 2015 that suggests the drinking water standard for PFAS chemicals should be as low as 1 ppt; significantly different than the 70 ppt recommended by the EPA.

Brinks called the hearing disappointing and unfortunate, but said she is optimistic about working with Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer.

“She ran on the campaign on making sure we have clean water, so I’m looking forward to having a partner in that,” Brinks said.

Whitmer’s Transition Team’s Press Secretary, Clare Liening, issued a statement regarding the future of MPART once the new administration takes over.

"PFAS contamination is a man-made catastrophe years in the making and the Governor-elect has been clear that anything less than an all-hands-on-deck approach to cleaning up our waterways is unacceptable,” Liening said. “Her transition team is currently undergoing reviews of all state departments and programs to provide recommendations for the Governor-elect after January 1."

Howell said if selected as chairman on the committee next session, he anticipates holding another informational PFAS hearing sometime in January or February.

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