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Truth Squad | Dana Nessel spreads inaccuracies about PFAS in Michigan waters

Dana Nessel, the Democratic nominee for Michigan attorney general, claims state Republicans are unwilling to address the emerging threat of water contamination from industrial chemicals known as PFAS.

Nessel makes her case in an ad Truth Squad rates as foul because it grossly inflates the number of sites that have tested positive for the hazardous chemicals while grossly minimizing Michigan’s efforts to tackle the problem.

THE CLAIMS

Released last week, the digital ad features Nessel discussing the dangers of PFAS, chemicals linked to a litany of health problems that are increasingly being detected in Michigan waters.  

The backdrop: The Huron River, where state officials in August warned against eating fish due to high levels of PFAS.  

“At least 11,000 different sites have tested positive for PFAS at dangerous levels,” Nessel claims.

“We haven’t had anyone in the state Legislature, we haven’t had anyone in the governor’s office, and we certainly haven’t had anyone in the office of Michigan attorney general who has been willing to really do anything about this issue,” she states.

Truth Squad rating categories

Truth Squad has reduced the number of rating categories to the following:

  • FAIR: The ad or statement is generally accurate and fairly and credibly presents the speaker’s position on the issue at hand.     
  • MISLEADING: While individual parts of the ad or statement may be accurate, it reaches a conclusion or leaves an impression about an issue or candidate that is misleading in important respects
  • FOUL: The ad or statement contains one or more material factual errors

CONCLUSION

No doubt, PFAS is a serious issue, as Truth Squad already pointed out when Attorney General Bill Schuette was unfairly slammed for not doing more to help those whose water supplies were contaminated.

And there’s plenty of room to debate about whether Michigan should have acted more quickly and aggressively to address it.

But Nessel’s ad dangerously spreads misinformation about one of the top threats to Michigan’s environment.

Her first falsehood is a whopper: She claims the state has 11,000 confirmed PFAS-tainted sites.

In fact, the number far less, although the tally is far from complete.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is testing all public water supplies and at schools with private wells for PFAS.

So far, 51 of the 770-plus sample results tested positive for any amount of the two most studied types of PFAS state officials looked for: PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), according to MDEQ data.  

And just six — all in the Kalamazoo County town of Parchment, which recently switched its water supply — tested above the U.S. EPA health advisory level for the chemicals.

Before testing statewide, officials had detected some level of PFAS in more than a dozen communities, some of which had contamination at multiple sites.

No doubt, anything more than zero is a problem –  but the tally so far is well shy of the number cited by Nessel.

In defending the ad, Nessel spokesman Austin Fisher pointed Truth Squad to a Detroit Free Press story from this summer headlined Harmful PFAS might contaminate more than 11,000 sites statewide.”

Key word: Might. That’s a far cry from Nessel’s claims they have “tested positive.”

That number refers to as many as 11,300 fire stations, landfills, airports and other sites that may have used products laced with the chemical, according to MDEQ maps of “potential PFAS sites” described in the news story.

"Those maps were really designed to be very, very conservative — just to identify worthwhile places to look and consider," an MDEQ spokesman was quoted as saying in the Detroit Free Press story.

The ad’s other argument –  that state government has done little to nothing about PFAS –  is more nuanced but misleading.

Fisher pointed to reports that a MEDQ Superfund specialist co-authored an internal report in 2012 that cited concerns about PFAS and recommended action, but was mostly ignored until 2017.

The Nessel campaign, in response to Truth Squad, scolded the Legislature for not advancing House Bill 5898 to hike fees to fund water system fixes and raise money to address PFAS and other contamination threats; and faulted Attorney General Bill Schuette for failing to sue chemical giant 3M over PFAS contamination, despite a request by Gov. Rick Snyder to do so.

Fair enough.

But the campaign neglects to mention Snyder (who Nessel accused of inaction) is aggressively promoting legislation to fund water system improvements, and Schuette’s office is preparing to sue 3M, according to a governor spokesman.

The ad’s claim that no one in state government “is willing to really do anything” omits a litany of actions on PFAS, including:

  • The statewide testing initiative;
  • The state's emergency declaration for Kalamazoo County after Parchment PFAS detection;
  • The state's lawsuit against Rockford-based Wolverine Worldwide following revelations that high levels of PFAS leached from shoemaker’s dumping sites in Kent County;
  • MDEQ’s decision to set cleanup criteria for PFAS — a legal standard allowing Michigan to take action against polluters in court.

Yes, many environmentalists and residents view state leaders’ actions as too limited and too late. That is a fair criticism and worthy of rigorous debate.

But Nessel’s reckless exaggeration of the threat and blanket claims that state leaders are doing nothing are demonstrably false and earn her ad a rating of foul.

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