House Democrats called on Republicans to hold hearings this week, specifically in the Natural Resources and Oversight committees, to have the Department of Environmental Quality present what it knows about PFAS contamination and how extensive the problem is in Michigan.
Eight Democrats, led by Minority Floor Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills), held a press conference Sept. 4 to demand the hearings and that lawmakers take immediate action to strengthen water quality standards for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a diverse group of compounds resistant to heat, water and oil. Such chemicals have been used in hundreds of consumer products and industrial applications including carpeting, apparels, upholstery, food paper wrappings, fire-fighting foams and metal plating.
The chairs of those committees, Rep. Gary Howell (R-North Branch) and Rep. Joseph Graves (R-Linden), called the press conference “political” and said hearings won’t be happening in early September. Howell said he is committed to holding hearings, but will wait until after the election.
“It is a pattern of indifference. That’s why we need the public pressure right now to call for hearings, call for oversight, and get back to an empowered DEQ that understands the issue, listens to the scientific data, listens to the public health concerns, and actually takes action,” Greig said in the press conference.
“I think the big concern is we have very few session days left,” said Rep. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores). “They have already cancelled a few weeks between now and the election and our concern is that we are here this week. There is no reason we cannot have hearings this week. The Oversight Committee meets at 9 a.m. on Thursdays and legislators will be here this Thursday. So, let’s bring the department in and ask them the important questions.”
Howell was not convinced.
“I don’t see, in the current atmosphere, it being a productive hearing. I’m not wanting to hear people demagogue this issue one way or the other. I want calm, clear testimony from scientifically qualified people to explain what the level should be going forward. And I just believe that we are not in the right atmosphere, at the moment, to have that kind of calm discussion and work out the best possible solution. But I am committed to doing hearings in November,” Howell said.
Graves noted the state legislature gave the DEQ $23 million a few months ago to study the problem.
“We want to give the DEQ an opportunity to do their job, conduct a study, take the proper empirical measurements, be analytical because this is a new animal . . . We need to know what this is. They are doing their testing. They are working with the feds. And we want to make sure they understand what’s a safe level and what’s an unsafe level,” he said.
Acceptable levels of PFAS in drinking water are a key issue. Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) noted that currently there are 30 communities in Michigan which have PFAS levels above the current advisory level of no more than 70 parts per trillion.
“Even more troubling is that that level is only an advisory. We still do not have an enforceable drink water standard established in law to protect our citizens from PFAS contamination,” Brinks said. She introduced legislation last year to set a much lower level for drinking water of 5 ppt. She said that is more in line with new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control of no more than 7 to 11 ppt.
Brinks also said Democrats are proposing to increase the funding for PFAS response to $39 million. She noted Gov. Rick SNYDER originally asked for that amount in the budget. She said Republicans in the legislature cut the amount to $23 million.
And Democrats have called for the Legislature to provide communities with alternate water supplies in cases of contamination, instead of relying on impractical bottled water for washing, bathing and cooking.
Since the introduction of legislation in December, House Democrats say they have repeatedly called on the chairman of House Oversight to hold hearings on PFAS contamination, yet their calls for action have gone unanswered.
Both Howell and Graves said they had not been contacted by Democrats about the call for hearings the week of Sept. 4.
“We are finally back in session tomorrow,” Greig said. “The time for excuses is past. This administration and legislative Republicans have an opportunity to show that they can do more than the bidding of the wealthy corporate donors. As the Great Lake State, our water is part of our collective identity. Yet, even as we are surrounded by the most abundant freshwater source on Earth, we are unable to assure the water coming out of our taps is safe for us to drink or bathe in. Pure Michigan has to be more than a marketing slogan.”
This story presented in cooperation with MIRS, a Lansing-based news and information service.