Traverse City News and Events

Details Emerge On PFAS Contaminants In East Bay Township

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 27, 2020

Approximately 20 households in East Bay Township could have drinking wells contaminated with PFAS chemicals linked to cancer and other health risks – with state and local health officials seeking to test the properties, provide bottled water as a short-term safety precaution, and potentially switch the homes to municipal hookups going forward, according to a virtual public town hall held Monday night.

Staff from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) presented results at the town hall from 10 sampling wells they installed in September along the south side of Parsons Road near Pine Grove neighborhood. EGLE selected the site to look for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals found in numerous industrial and consumer products that have been identified in recent years as an "emerging contaminant" posing health risks to humans, according to Michigan’s Environmental Health department. The chemicals have been linked to increased cholesterol, decreased fertility, and increased likelihood of certain cancers, among other risks.

The Parsons Road area was tested because of its proximity to Cherry Capital Airport and the U.S Coast Guard Air Station. Firefighting foam used for training purposes at those sites since the 1970s has been found to contain PFAS at other locations, including Blair Township, where a pollution plume was found in 2018 at a former tire fire site. Annual testing of firefighting equipment at the airport and U.S. Coast Guard station "resulted in discharges of the firefighting foam to the ground,” according to EGLE. While EGLE staff said testing was still ongoing to determine the exact source of contamination, the department did discover elevated levels of PFAS in numerous testing wells along Parsons Road.

One of those wells – toward the eastern edge of the testing zone near Avenue E – came back at nearly 18,000 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS, a type of PFAS compound. The state limit for drinking water for that chemical is just 16 ppt. Several other wells also came in significantly over state limits for PFOS, ranging from 20-60 ppt at some sites into the hundreds and thousands of ppt at others. Ann Emington, an EGLE geologist leading the testing, said that because residential wells in Pine Grove neighborhood are down-gradient from the contaminated testing wells, "we felt it was necessary to contact the local residents” and get permission to sample their properties. Letters were mailed to all affected property owners seeking permission to test their wells, a process that could begin the first week of November and produce results by the end of the month.

Approximately 20 homes, one business, and several irrigation wells are within the potential impact field of the pollution plume. Emington noted that the wells closest to the most polluted test sites appear to be irrigation and not drinking wells. However, officials warned that even irrigation wells pose health risks, as contaminated water could be sprayed onto garden plants that are later eaten. Ingestion – from drinking, cooking, or eating contaminated crops or game like fish – is the riskiest form of contact with PFAS. Showering or doing laundry with contaminated water is considered to be OK, as PFAS are not generally absorbed through the skin. Boiling PFAS-contaminated water will not remove the pollution, officials said, though some water filters can effectively eliminate the chemicals.

Officials cautioned that they don’t know yet whether any residential wells are contaminated in East Bay Township. Even if contamination is found, it doesn’t necessarily mean residents will experience any adverse health effects – it’s a risk but not a given, representatives said, with factors like pollution levels and length of time of exposure impacting outcomes. Still, Environmental Health Director Dan Thorell of the Grand Traverse County Health Department said bottled water was being provided effective immediately to any potential affected residents out of "an abundance of caution” until testing is completed.

Longer-term solutions could also be made available to homeowners, including hooking the properties up to public water. East Bay Township Supervisor Beth Friend said the township is already in discussions with state officials about accessing a portion of a $25 million grant funding pool expected to be available in mid-November for addressing water contamination across Michigan. Township trustees will meet in early November to consider approving a proposal that would allow affected residents to hook up to municipal water and hold in abeyance the fee for doing so – which Friend acknowledged was "not inexpensive” – until the township can apply for grant funding. If funding is approved, those monies could cover the hookup costs, Friend said – though property owners would still be responsible for the fee if the state rejects grant funding for East Bay Township.

Additional future testing could also help determine the exact size of the pollution plume and other potentially impacted sites. After some residents asked about impacts on Mitchell Creek – a nearby environmentally sensitive watershed – Emington said the depth and estimated trajectory of the plume made it unlikely Mitchell Creek would be impacted. East Grand Traverse Bay, the drinking water supply for the City of Traverse City, has shown small traces of PFAS through testing in recent years, but none that have exceeded drinking water guidelines. Emington noted that it was difficult to determine definitively at this time whether Cherry Capital Airport and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station were the source of the PFAS contamination near Parsons Road, saying that both locations were expediting their own on-site testing to assist with the study. Environmental clean-up could eventually take place in the area based on test results, according to officials, as could a larger investigation to define the exact boundaries of the plume.

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