TRAVERSE CITY — Dan and Hillerie Rettelle have health problems. They also have confirmed PFAS contamination in their water well — a lot of it.
The couple is convinced there’s more than just a correlation there. They live at their home on Avenue B in East Bay Township, where public health officials recently tested their drinking water following the discovery of high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the groundwater near the Pine Grove subdivision.
The Rettelles’ well test results came in Friday and showed a collective 840-plus parts per trillion of PFAS chemicals — as much as 35 times the maximum contaminant levels for drinking water for the two most prominent toxins found.
“You think, ‘OK, that’s horrible. How long has it been like that?’” said Dan Rettelle.
He said it’s the second-highest level among the 15 homes tested in the first round of screenings for the 20 homes and one business thought to be impacted because of water well use. He learned that during a Friday conference call with state, local and health officials.
Health officials confirmed some PFAS levels were discovered in all 15 wells. The highest level found in a drinking water well was 1,300 ppt of the chemical PFOS, known to be associated with firefighting foam.
The state’s limit for that chemical in drinking water is 16 ppt.
The Rettelles said they quickly began to see connections to their health problems.
Dan Rettelle said he recently underwent multiple cancer screenings and his wife has endured spinal deterioration issues in recent years, including an upcoming shoulder surgery. And that’s after she had a hysterectomy two years ago when her uterus was found to be “filled with benign tumors,” Hillerie Rettelle said.
They are convinced their health problems may be because of the chemicals in their water. And nobody yet knows for how long.
“We’ve all had possible problems with exposure,” Dan Rettelle said. “I want to get my blood tested and see how much is in my body.”
Health officials said they have good reason to worry.
“It’s concerning, of course,” said Dan Thorell, environmental health director for the Grand Traverse County Health Department. “If I was a resident of that neighborhood and I’d been drinking this water for some time I’d be concerned.”
The chemicals have been used for decades in products ranging from nonstick cookware to stain-resistant clothing and food containers, as well as foam used to extinguish jet-fuel fires. They’re known as “forever chemicals” because they persist indefinitely in the environment without breaking down.
They have increasingly turned up in public water supplies and private wells around the country.
Studies have linked the chemicals to testicular cancer, damage to organs including the liver and kidneys, and reproductive system harm. They are also known to build up in human bodies, or “bio-accumulate.”
Officials are now in a rush to find ways to get impacted homes connected to the township’s public water system.
State environmental regulators and health officials said they recommend all homes in the Pine Grove neighborhood be connected to the municipal water system as soon as possible.
“That would be the prudent course of action,” said Scott Dean, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. “We don’t want them to wait.”
He said that utility system is already easily available for connections to every impacted address. Pine Grove was piped for public water nearly four decades ago after a trichloroethylene (TCE) plume was discovered coming from a helicopter rotor blade manufacturing plant at what is now the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District Career Tech Center.
Officials said not every home connected all those years ago and while that system may now be the most viable solution for safe drinking water, those connections don’t come cheap, let alone for free.
Beth Friend, township supervisor, confirmed hook-up fees will run between $4,800 and $5,200, plus any bill from the contractor who does the work. The government is restricted from waiving those costs.
However, township officials will apply for a Michigan Clean Water Plan grant to help residents offset the costs, though answers about that funding won’t come for months. Friend said it also remains unknown whether grant dollars can be awarded retroactively to residents who don’t wish to wait.
“We’re going to see if they allow for that,” Friend said.
The supervisor said there is a five-year payment plan for those who want to act faster than that but can’t pay the whole bill up front. That move would be a gamble risking the possibility of grant dollars which may come with restrictions, she said.
Scott said state officials believe the connections should be done with haste.
“Don’t wait for the (grant) funds. Do it now is what we’re saying,” he said.
That may very well be what Jeff and Pam Morrison do, she said.
“I just think we ought to jump on it,” Pam Morrison said.
Their home’s well water didn’t return results with concentrations as toxic as her across-the-street neighbors, the Rettelles, but she said it was above standards for one PFAS chemical. Because Jeff Morrison is a plumbing contractor, he can do the work himself, Pam Morrison said.
She said she recognizes not everyone is in that fortunate position, though.
Health officials said until construction can be done to connect homes to the water system, the health department will have filtration systems installed at the kitchen sinks of the impacted homes.
Thorell said that’s not ideal, either — a single, safe water source in homes for drinking, cooking and teeth brushing that barely does more than trickle. It creates a series of inconveniences, but he said it’s keenly important to immediately cut off PFAS exposure by consumption.
That’s why bottled water has been provided to those impacted, Thorell said, and filtration systems are expected to be scheduled for installation within a month. But it could be spring before water line connections are completed via the state grant program, he said.
Thorell said that timeline estimate is based on his experience with the same grant program for the PFAS contamination site in Blair Township near the historical Carl’s Retreading fire site.
Pam Morrison and Hillerie Rettelle said they knocked on 19 of the 20 impacted homes’ doors on Saturday, intent to ensure everyone knew the latest information on the situation.
They worried a lack of quick response to form letters sent out to impacted homeowners left township officials with the impression there was little interest in connections to the public water lines.
The duo said they didn’t believe that to be true and, in fact, found impacted residents who didn’t know anything about the PFAS contamination. That was often because they are rental tenants and landlords hadn’t mentioned anything, the said.
It turned out interest in safe water connections was very much a reality, they said. They said they found some who didn’t know what precautions they should already be taking.
“We can’t use the water for anything other than showering and washing your laundry,” Hillerie Rettelle said.
It’s challenging to change personal habits in your home, she said.
“You still turn on the faucet, even with the bottled water sitting there.”
Impacted residents can pick up bottled water for free at the neighborhood fire station on Parsons Avenue, or health department officials will deliver to those who can’t leave their homes.
Meanwhile, investigation into the sources of the contamination is expected to continue into the new year.
Officials first found the pollutants in East Bay Township through monitoring wells installed in September along Parsons Road, north of the aviation area shared by Cherry Capital Airport and U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City.
PFAS chemicals PFOA AND PFOS were found in all 10 monitoring wells along Parsons Avenue. Some wells returned alarmingly elevated levels and all 10 returned results beyond state drinking water standards.
One monitoring well returned a level of 17,900 parts per trillion for PFOS — more than 1,100 times the state’s new limit of 16 ppt for that chemical.
The suspected sources of the harmful chemicals are historical training exercises at either the airport, air station, or both, which involved PFAS-laden firefighting foam.
Kevin Klein, director at Cherry Capital Airport, said airport officials want to find a solution, but the organization’s budget restrictions limit how its taxpayer dollars can be spent.
Public water system connections for private citizens just isn’t allowed under federal aviation restrictions, Klein said.
However, he said the airport this summer applied for and was awarded a $250,000 grant to install groundwater monitoring wells on airport property to investigate any contamination sources on site. The wells went in last month and first assessments will be made next month, Klein said.
Coast Guard officials are expected to investigate PFAS pollution in groundwater at the base, but officials could not be reached Monday for comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.