John Truscott is founder and president of the Michigan-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman. Previously, he was press secretary to Gov. John Engler and consulted on Gov. Rick Snyder’s MPART board.
As the Whitmer Administration begins to shape its policy goals, it’s clear that the governor and her team have set a laser focus on one of the most urgent public health issues facing our state. The danger of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their related compounds is in the early stages of being understood. Michigan, however, has been at the forefront of this development and the rest of the country is watching.
Most people know the products that PFAS chemicals were used to make better: Teflon cookware, waterproofing for everything from clothing to carpet, even firefighting foam. At one time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even recommended that the metal plating industry use PFAS to protect workers from breathing harmful fumes in the manufacturing process. It’s both ironic and tragic that the very chemicals meant to increase safety and make life more convenient have been determined to be harmful at certain levels.
While I believe this is one of America’s next great environmental and health challenges, I know that Michigan state government is well equipped to take on this task. Gov. Rick Snyder created MPART (Michigan PFAS Action Response Team) to ensure all state departments work together to research and address issues related to PFAS. MPART broke down the typical silos in government and promoted a cooperative and communicative approach to identifying and solving issues. It has been an example of state government at its best and is seen as a model for government collaboration.
From developing proactive preventative measures to taking swift legal action against polluters to quickly providing public information, the dedicated professionals at MPART worked closely together to make Michigan a national leader regarding PFAS issues.
One of the main reasons for MPART’s success was that it has been implemented similar to an emergency operations center. Anyone who has watched the news from a hurricane or flood has seen an emergency operation in action. All of the relevant agencies are working closely together in the same room and information is provided to the public in a transparent manner as quickly as possible. Professionals staffing an emergency center learn to operate with an urgency not often seen in government.
The best example of MPART working as an emergency operations center is the Michigan city of Parchment. The state had been in the process of testing all public water systems for PFAS. When it found high levels of contamination in Parchment’s water supply, MPART immediately informed residents, shut off the contaminated water and switched residents to alternative water until remediation actions could be completed. All of this happened in a matter of hours.
This week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made the wise decision to keep MPART in place and make it a permanent part of her administration. This is critical because it’s too easy for state departments to silo themselves and stick to what they know and do things as they’ve always been done. Forcing cross-department communication on a critical issue like PFAS ensures that information flows in real time and decisions are made using the most up-to-date information.
Whitmer has already faced a potential public health crisis in the recent natural gas shortage, and passed with flying colors. She will undoubtedly be challenged again as more PFAS contamination is discovered around Michigan.
She will be well served by the dedicated people in place throughout state government who have already faced some of the toughest public health issues Michigan has ever seen and are quickly becoming experts in PFAS contamination. By continuing to leverage MPART as a fast acting, science-based operation that collaborates across multiple agencies, the governor will continue Michigan’s leadership role in understanding and dealing with the threat of PFAS.