Meeting on PFAS Contamination Draws Crowd

On January 23, a public meeting was held at Lowell City Hall to discuss the detection of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) at a former dump site owned by the City of Lowell.

The former municipal waste landfill, located off Ware Road, was in operation from 1958 to 1983. In 2019, with the help of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the city made a plan to monitor the groundwater surrounding the site. Monitoring wells were installed in the former landfill and last summer, water sampled from these wells was found to have slightly elevated levels of PFAS. PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals that don’t break down easily and can impact human health.

Several representatives from EGLE, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) were present at the meeting to offer additional information and answer residents’ questions about PFAS.

Heidi Hollenbach, the PFAS Regional Team Lead, explained that MPART is a multi-agency response team that brings together representatives from seven different state agencies who work collectively to address PFAS contamination in Michigan.

Ashley Hanas, a toxicologist with MDHHS described the most common way people are exposed to PFAS: through drinking water or by eating fish contaminated with PFAS. She explained that PFAS cannot easily be absorbed through the skin so bathing or swimming in water contaminated with PFAS is not a concern. Hanas went on to say that the research into PFAS and their potential effects has just begun, and much more research needs to be done to understand these chemicals and their impact on human health.

Daniel Ten Brink, the EGLE Site Lead for the Ware Road location was there to relay specifics about the history of the site, what is known and what has been done so far, and what measures will need to be implemented in the future to ensure resident safety long term.

Because of the discovery of PFAS in the monitoring wells, the City of Lowell has begun reaching out to 40 residents near the site to test residential wells identified by EGLE. Ten Brink said that of the nine residential wells sampled so far, eight had no detectable levels of PFAS. One well tested had detectable levels of a specific PFAS compound, PFBA, of 5.3 parts per trillion. The acceptable level of this chemical in drinking water is 420 parts per trillion, so the amount detected was very low.

Ten Brink said that the investigation was ongoing and urged residents who have received a letter from the city with a request to sample their well to allow their well to be tested. He noted that community water supplies are tested annually for PFAS, and test samples have not contained any PFAS to date. That means residents whose water is provided by the City of Lowell or, to the east of the landfill site, by the Village of Saranac do not need their home water tested.

The meeting was then opened up for residents to ask questions and voice concerns.

Several residents had questions regarding what would happen if PFAS were to be detected in their wells. City Manager Mike Burns said that if that were to happen, the city would be required to pay for and install a high-quality, under-the-sink water filter in the resident’s home. The particular filter that would be installed has been rigorously tested and shown to remove all detectable levels of PFAS from the water.

Other residents who were just outside the area where residential wells have been tested by the city wondered why they hadn’t been contacted to have their wells tested. They questioned how they could know that their wells weren’t also contaminated.

Ten Brink explained that EGLE was first looking at the drinking wells directly surrounding the former landfill and also investigating areas that are in the direction of the groundwater’s flow, which is in a north to northeasterly direction. He went on to say that the residential wells being tested are the ones EGLE would expect to see impacted first, and further from the landfill site, PFAS levels should go down, not up. Ten Brink added that this is only the first round of testing, and that if any wells were found to have detectable levels of PFAS, the sample area would be expanded to test additional sites.

Many of the citizens present at the meeting who lived near the landfill area wondered what the next steps were and if there were proactive measures that could be taken to protect their drinking water rather than install filters once a problem was found. One resident wondered if the area containing most of the PFAS could be dug up and removed from the area. EGLE Assistant District Supervisor Jay Poll said that the costs associated with digging up, transporting and storing the contaminated soil would unfortunately be astronomical.

Ten Brink explained that the next phase, after testing and monitoring drinking wells in the immediate area and ensuring resident wells were free of PFAS, was to try to hone in on where the majority of the PFAS are located by installing additional monitoring wells. Once that area is determined, a “feasibility study” will take place, in which EGLE looks at the best long term ways to contain the contamination and mitigate possible future damages to local residents.

One local citizen asked about the filter installation if contamination levels of PFAS were to be found in a residential well. He questioned whether the city would pay for just one (kitchen) filter to be installed and wondered whether additional filters would need to be installed in bathrooms. Poll responded by explaining that the one filter is installed under the kitchen sink because that is where most people take the majority of water they use for consumption, such as for drinking or cooking. Because contact with the skin (as in bathing or handwashing) is not a concern, filters would not be installed in bathrooms.

Poll said that EGLE recommends all homeowners with wells have their water tested. He said that their local health department can help advise of any common contaminants in the area and the appropriate tests. EGLE recommends water testing each time a new well is dug, and then maintenance testing every 3-5 years, depending on the area and risk of contaminants.

For more details on the Ware Road site and monitoring for PFAS, residents can check out the MPART website, and Burns said that there is now a PFAS tab at the City of Lowell’s website.

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