Federal leaders talk progress in combatting PFAS, remembering the victims that made it possible •

Right now it is the work of individuals, either fighting for themselves or their loved ones, who are leading the charge in calling for accountability for those who are releasing PFAS into people’s backyards, but they shouldn’t have to be the ones championing these efforts, several leaders from the federal government said at the National PFAS Conference Monday.

Ann Arbor, Michigan is hosting this year’s conference as the state’s environmental agency estimates that at least 1.5 million Michiganders have been drinking water that’s contaminated by PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are a group of thousands of harmful man-made “forever chemicals”.

PFAS is associate with a host of adverse health reactions such as different cancers, kidney disease and issues with pregnancy.

The perseverance of individuals, committed to protecting their neighbors and seeking out truth, has motivated people on the federal side to act, White House Deputy National Climate Adviser Mary Frances Repko said over video at the conference.

White House Deputy National Climate Adviser Mary Frances Repko speaks at the National PFAS Conference over video on June 10, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

“We wouldn’t be here today without that strong science, that thoughtful analysis and that dedication. And while we in the administration don’t imagine that a federal regulation could ever ease the pain of the loss of a loved one, we do hope that you will see that your science, your passion, your advocacy, and your love for your friends, family and community have made a change that will impact over 100 million other lives,” Repko said. “Without all of you pushing together, advocating and asking the powers that be to make change, change would have happened more slowly, if at all.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) serves as co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, telling attendees watching that what happened to his hometown of, Flint, which faced a lead contamination crisis in 2014, sparked a passion for taking actions to ensure communities are protected against all kinds of contamination, whether it be lead or PFAS.

“The notion that this great old industrial American city that helped put the world on wheels would no longer have access to safe drinking water because of lead contamination was such an affront to all our sensibilities,” Kildee said. “It’s such a painful example of how little we can take for granted. So we had to roll up our sleeves and get to work to guarantee safe drinking water for the people of Flint.”

And just as the people of Flint were unsatisfied by the answers they were getting about the safety of the water and their health issues, the people in the Oscoda area near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base were unsatisfied and made noise, Kildee said. 

The state became aware of PFAS contamination from the base to the surrounding area in March 2010 and cleanup is still ongoing.

“I never would have imagined when I was first elected to Congress that so much of my focus, so much of my work would be in the direction of something that we’ve all taken for granted virtually all of our lives for the entire existence of any of our communities,” Kildee said. “We’ve taken for granted the notion that when it comes to drinking water, in particular, that if you turn on the tap, somebody has ensured that what comes out is going to be safe for you to drink.”

Repko, a Michigan native from East Lansing, said she grew up going to camp and swimming in Lake Huron near Wurtsmith so the issue of PFAS is a personal one for her.

In April, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, issued the first ever drinking water standard protecting against PFAS and being in the administration at the time of that decision brings conflicting feelings for Repko.

“‘The first ever’. As I think about those words I’m both heartened and heartbroken to say them. I’m heartbroken because too many families have already suffered the horrors and the tragedies of PFAS contamination,” Repko said. “My heart is full of hope and determination because President Biden’s team has shone a light on that invisible enemy and it will not be invisible any longer.”

Sandy Wynn-Stelt, now co-chair at the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, told her story of living in her and her husband’s dream house, in the middle of a Christmas tree farm for 25 years, unknowingly being poisoned by PFAS from manufacturing waste from Wolverine World Wide in their well water.

Sandy Wynn-Stelt, co-chair at the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, speaks at the National PFAS Conference over video on June 10, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

As the pair were getting ready to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in 2016,  Wynn-Stelt said her husband, Joel, was having some stomach problems and sought out medical attention and found out he had stage 4 liver cancer. He died three weeks later. 

“When somebody you care about dies quickly. You don’t have time to go through the acceptance and denial and all of that. You are literally just hanging on for dear life and I hope every person in here has someone that you care about that much and that they love that much and if you do, you… call them and tell them because you can lose them in a heartbeat.”

Wynn-Stelt was diagnosed with cancer in 2020, she said, having 5000 parts per million PFAS in her blood, more than 700 times the national average. 

Because individuals have made their voices heard and fought for clean water for them and their families, progress has been made, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) said, praising a recent decision from the EPA to designate two common used PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) speaks at the National PFAS Conference over video on June 10, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, releases of more than a pound of  perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) or  perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in a 24-hour period have to be reported and area residents will have to be notified under certain CERCLA rules.

“We must continue to focus on cleaning up [existing] contamination, but more importantly, preventing new contamination and the continued spread of PFAS and hold polluters accountable,” Dingell said.

 



authored by Anna Liz Nichols
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