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Michigan waited years to heed warnings on PFAS dangers, expert says

Related: Whitmer: State workers must report health threats, and bosses must listen​

GRAND RAPIDS — Robert Delaney says his discovery of widespread PFAS chemicals in Michigan’s environment shook him to the core.

Testifying Tuesday, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Superfund specialist said he believed federal laws were enough to protect the public health and track thousands of chemicals from the moment manufacturers release them to the public.

Delaney said he realized he was wrong in 2010. That’s when he found widespread contamination from hazardous and indestructible perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and learned more about the industrial chemicals’ dangers and abundance in Michigan and across the nation.

“I began to feel that I was at the edge of the abyss looking into hell and the weight of the world was on my shoulders,” Delaney said in emotional testimony at a summit on PFAS risks organized by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

“My fear and anger turned to conviction and determination.”

PFAS sites in Michigan

Here’s a look at communities where Michigan environmental regulators have confirmed major contaminations of PFAS, a once commonly used industrial chemical. Click on the dots for a brief summary of each site. Note: The data is current as of July 30.

Source: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

It was the first time Delaney has publicly addressed at length sentiments by some environmentalists that his bosses in Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration were slow to move to address PFAS contamination, years after Delaney began raising alarms.

“I was so disturbed from the start that — everything that happened, I was just trying to get someone to listen,” Delaney said, when asked by Peters if he was disturbed his bosses didn’t give him feedback until this year.

“Yes, I was disturbed.”

Delaney acknowledged the state’s years-long inaction on PFAS is frustrating, but he said assessing blame now won’t fix what he termed a “crisis” in in Michigan and nationwide.

“People want to know what I think about the state’s current efforts on PFAS,” said Delaney, who has been with the DEQ for three decades.

“Although nothing is perfect, Michigan and a few other states (are) shining a light on a problem the nation must face. And Michigan’s experience can’t be ignored.”

Delaney later told reporters that the state’s current PFAS response is “a miracle.”

“Honestly, if you would have told me back [a year ago] that Michigan would become one of the leaders in the nation on this issue — that we would have been trying to point the way and expose this to everybody...I would have never believed you,” he said.

PFAS is shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They were used to manufacture everything from Teflon and Scotchguard to firefighting foam and have been linked to low birth weights, immune system troubles, thyroid problems and cancer.

The state is increasingly finding these chemicals as it ramped up its response.

Michigan kicked off its statewide response last year and accelerated the efforts in 2018. The Department of Environmental Quality is testing all public water supplies for PFAS, and Snyder in July instructed Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to sue manufacturing giant 3M,  seeking compensation for environmental and health damages from products the company produced.

Snyder’s administration has touted such efforts, which have also garnered some independent praise.

"What you're seeing is a very rapid response,” Carol Isaacs, director of Michigan’s year-old PFAS Action Response Team, said during the hearing Tuesday at Grand Valley State University.

Residents of communities contaminated with PFAS, though, have excoriated Snyder’s administration for not acting sooner, since Delaney’s early calls for action first became known late last year. They were aired first on the radio show of conservative personality Steve Gruber, and then through media reports.

In 2012, Delaney teamed with Richard DeGrandchamp, a toxicology and epidemiology professor at the University of Colorado, on a 93-page report to then-DEQ Director Dan Wyant called “Michigan’s Contaminant Induced Human Health Crisis: Addressing Michigan’s Future By Facing the Challenge of the Evolving Nature of Environmental Contamination.”

Delaney said he never got feedback from Wyant about the report, which he said was an effort to brainstorm solutions.

"Director Wyant always said that he really didn’t know much about the environmental business. He knew how to work in government," Delaney said.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Delaney sought to downplay his frustrations, even as he acknowledged they would draw most headlines on Tuesday.

“There’s millions of decisions that led to this,” he said. “There’s a great need for jobs...we were responding to a culture of that economic need, and the Snyder administration expressed that point of view.”

Peters told reporters he is “disappointed” the state didn’t heed Delaney’s concerns sooner.

“His passion was very evident,” Peters said. “Certainly, we should have had this conversation before, but at this point now, it’s about moving forward.”

Peters said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency needs to set uniform standards on PFAS and drinking water to ease anxieties.

“There is enough science to get started on this now.”

Peters also said he was disappointed the EPA refused his invitation to testify at the summit, though the agency did submit a letter.

“I will continue to be pushing the EPA to move forward with coming up with standards to protect people and treat this issue with the seriousness that it deserves,” Peters said.

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