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DEQ expert who warned of PFAS risk in 2012 explains why it took the state years to respond

Do not eat the fish because of pfas sign
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

How well has the State of Michigan responded to the problem of PFAS contamination of our groundwater? That was the focus of a Grand Rapids hearing Tuesday convened by U.S. Senator Gary Peters, D-Mich.

During his introduction to the hearing, Sen. Peters praised Michigan Department of Environmental Quality geologist Robert Delaney for his “foresight and bravery in sounding the alarm” about PFAS contamination in Michigan.

Delaney joined Stateside to talk about his work on PFAS, and why his warnings to the state about the extent of contamination in 2012 didn’t get a much of a response until last year.

PFAS, or “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” are a group of highly-resistant industrial chemicals that have been used in the production of firefighting foam, waterproof shoes, non-stick pots and pans, and other materials since the 1950s. The chemicals were first put on Delaney’s radar back in 2010 when he was involved with cleanup efforts at Air Force bases across the state, including Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.

When Delaney learned that the U.S. Department of Defense considered PFAS chemicals to be contaminants of emerging concern, Delaney asked a consultant of his to test a soil sample from Wurtsmith for PFOS and PFOA, two common chemicals in the PFAS family. They discovered that the soil was “highly contaminated.”

“We started taking duplicate samples of everything the Air Force did, and as we proceeded, we found PFOS, PFOA, and a bunch of other chemicals all over the base, all through the surface water, and in all the fish,” Delaney said.

PFAS chemicals are nearly impossible to break down. That means that if PFAS are deposited in the environment — say, when a manufacturing company releases discharge containing the chemicals into a nearby creek — they will be there for a very long time. Delaney said he became frightened by what appeared to be the rapidly-increasing magnitude of the situation, and by the fact that very few people understood the potential harm.

Delaney began conducting his own research into PFAS. He wasn’t trained in toxicology or in epidemiology, but he wanted to be entirely certain that these chemicals posed a threat to public health before tasking the Air Force with cleaning up Wurtsmith.

“I call them the ‘contaminants from hell’ because they travel everywhere, they bioaccumulate, they’re indestructible, we need them for so many things," he said. "It’s the perfect contaminant if you want to create a problem.”

PFAS exposure has been linked to an increased risk of testicular and kidney cancer, thyroid and immune system issues, and developmental problemsin fetuses and newborns. These chemicals aren’t easily absorbed through the skin, so exposure usually results from drinking PFAS-contaminated water.

In 2012, Delaney submitted a 93-page report to then-MDEQ Director Dan Wyant. He recommended checking state blood and food supplies for contamination as preliminary measures to address the PFAS problem.

"My biggest emphasis was saying 'Look, we can’t clean all this stuff up immediately. What we want to really make sure is we’re just not consuming it, we’re not taking it in,'" Delaney said.

Delaney hoped Wyant would bring in other scientists to evaluate the scope and severity of PFAS contamination before bringing the issue to Gov. Rick Snyder. But aside forming a small PFAS task group at the agency and adding the chemicals to yearly sampling for fish and water, Delaney didn’t see much movement on the issue.  

When asked what he thinks about Gov. Snyder’s recent action on PFAS, years after the circulation of his report, Delaney said that “nothing is perfect.”

“Governor Snyder came in with a mandate to fix the economy," he said. "He was brought in. We voted in someone who was from the business community. And the perception in the business community has always been that they’re over regulated, that a lot of people feel we’re doing too much on the environment."

He said that the Snyder administration has taken a more aggressive and informed approach to environmental quality issues since the fallout from the Flint water crisis. Delaney thinks the governor’s decision to begin testing water systems across the state will change discussions regarding PFAS contamination nationwide.

“Once that data started to come in, that data is informing the whole nation of the problem," Delaney said. "Michigan is by far not the only state with PFAS problems, we’re just the ones that are — us and a few other states — are really shining a light on ‘Hey, this is in your water. This is in your food. This is in your surface water, in your fish. You need to do something about it.'"

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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