TRAVERSE CITY — Public records show eight months elapsed between when state and local officials began corresponding about potential drinking water contamination in the Pine Grove neighborhood and when they told residents.
Timelines posted on both state and airport websites show the official investigation of PFAS pollution at Cherry Capital Airport and the adjacent U.S. Coast Guard Air Station and possible impacts on homes in the nearby neighborhood began in February 2020. But state and local officials waited until October to disclose details about the contamination risk to the residents of the approximately 20 homes suspected of daily use of well water.
“Why wouldn’t you give the people a heads up? Tell us there might be a problem and save us eight months of contamination,” said Hillerie Rettelle, who lives in the neighborhood and whose well water returned the second-highest contamination level among those screened.
Residents who live along Avenue B echoed both shock and anger over the delayed notification — their street is where the highest levels of residential PFAS contamination were found by state environmental regulators as part of the investigation launched last year. Both state and local health officials said those reactions are understandable, but they couldn’t officially warn residents about what they couldn’t yet prove.
But residents who were allowed to continue drinking from their wells for those eight months bristled at the regulators’ explanation for the delay.
State environmental regulators confirmed both soil and groundwater samples showed PFAS contamination at Cherry Capital Airport at significant levels and it will now be labeled an official response site for eventual cleanup.
Meanwhile, nearby Pine Grove neighborhood residents with PFAS chemicals found in their private drinking water wells will be connected to a public system that will provide clean water.
Those municipal water connections will arrive four months after the impacted residents first learned about the risk of PFAS contamination in their wells and began to use bottled or filtered water; some now argue they deserved more information, and sooner.
Rettelle said officials at Cherry Capital Airport sent a letter this month about a website dedicated to explaining the ongoing PFAS contamination investigation. It drew her attention to an online timeline and a letter from state environmental officials in February 2020 that mentioned approximately 20 homes using well water that “could be at risk from PFAS releases that may have occurred.”
“Why wouldn’t they notify us at the same damn time? That would have been a full eight months of not contaminating our bodies,” Rettelle said.
Her across-the-street neighbor Pam Morrison simply said “I’m angry.”
Morrison said even if state or airport money couldn’t have paid for bottled water or filtration systems for affected residents, it would have been better to know health and environmental officials believed there was enough of a risk to investigate.
“If it was important enough to talk about, why couldn’t they have told us,” she said. “I deserved to make a choice.”
State and local health officials said while they can appreciate the residents’ anger, scientific protocol called for provable data before putting out a public health warning.
“We go out and gather data and act based on the data,” said Steve Sliver, executive director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.
State scientists simply can’t advise residents about risk until they have the facts, he said.
“We don’t give people recommendations based on no data,” Sliver said.
The Grand Traverse County Health Department’s environmental health director said much the same.
“We don’t speculate that there’s a problem until we know there’s a problem,” said Dan Thorell. “It’s not good science to rouse up people and get them concerned until we wait for the data.”
Thorell said he empathizes with those who said they wanted to know about the risk as soon as possible.
“It’s a difficult thing to swallow knowing they’ve been drinking contaminated water,” he said.
Official MPART site
Groundwater samples taken from the airport property recently showed PFAS contamination beyond state maximum contaminant levels for those pollutants in drinking water.
Those results trigger the Traverse City airport’s new designation as an official MPART site; continued investigation and eventual cleanup efforts are expected to follow.
PFAS is an acronym for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are found in firefighting foam, nonstick pots and pans, water-repellent clothing, and many other household and personal items. They are 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 nationwide.
Medical 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.”
Among the most common source of PFAS contamination in proximity to aviation areas has been a type of firefighting foam that can extinguish fires burning liquid fuel. Chemicals associated with the foam have increasingly been found around both airports and military bases.
Results from environmental testing done at U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City are expected in coming weeks, officials said.
In the meantime, work to determine the magnitude of PFAS contamination at the airport will continue, said Kevin Klein, airport director.
“What comes next is we are continuing testing,” he said.
Samples will be collected quarterly, with additional monitoring wells planned to be installed in April. Repeatedly collected samples will be used to help define the contamination zone for future cleanup, Klein said.
The first round of the airport’s groundwater screenings showed chemicals long-associated with firefighting foam — PFOA and PFOS.
The highest levels of each were found in a groundwater monitoring well adjacent to the airport’s firefighting and rescue building: 3,050 parts per trillion of PFOA and 146 ppt of PFOS. That’s 381 times the state’s maximum contaminant level for the former and nine times the state’s limit for the latter chemical.
Compared to the monitoring wells installed last year along Parsons Avenue, the airport’s results showed more PFOA but exponentially less PFOS. Those first-installed monitoring wells on the northern edge of the aviation area registered at the high end 102 ppt of PFOA and 17,900 ppt of PFOS.
When results return from sampling at the Coast Guard’s air station, state environmental officials will have a better idea of the source of the Pine Grove neighborhood contamination, Sliver said.
Until then — but maybe not even then — he said the airport cannot officially be tagged the culprit of the neighborhood’s water pollution. He said a completed investigation will reveal that answer.
“It’s a contamination source. We just don’t know what the impacts are yet,” Sliver said.
Clean water coming
The first municipal water connections for Pine Grove neighborhood residents are scheduled to happen in coming days.
Morrison said it has been exhausting waiting for public water connections to come, a process expected to take about 30 days to hook up all 18 impacted homes.
Rettelle said it will be a relief to stop showering at another person’s house every other day to protect her recent surgery incision from PFAS contamination when she bathes. The past four months have been difficult, she said.
East Bay Township officials worked with county and state agencies to secure grant money to cover the costs to connect the 18 homes in Pine Grove that depend on well water.
The funding made a difference, said Beth Friend, township supervisor.
“We would not have gotten all 18 if it had not been completely funded with the grants,” she said, explaining the financial burden of the needed construction and statutory connection fee would have been too much for some of the affected households.
Workers marked utility lines last week and work on the connections will begin soon, Friend said.
Thorell said it is, in fact, a relief that all 18 homes signed up to connect to public water since each associated private water well showed some level of PFAS contamination, even if not beyond state limits for drinking water.
The municipal water connections are the outcome of the public health official’s hunch that those living near the aviation area could be impacted by the emerging contaminant more and more often in the news.
Thorell said he’d been asked about public health risks associated with PFAS use at the local airport and Coast Guard air station — by a Record-Eagle reporter, if he remembered correctly — and decided to follow up. He wasn’t convinced every household in Pine Grove was connected to public water.
“I just had a suspicion and thought I’d better double-check,” Thorell said.
The environmental health director said he cross-referenced neighborhood addresses with township water bill records and discovered about 20 homes that seemed likely to be at risk. He said he contacted the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, which kicked off the state’s investigation in February last year.
Proof of that effort showed up on those online PFAS investigation websites, both Rettelle and Morrison noted — situated on the timelines eight months before they were clued in to the risks to their families’ health.