PFAS plume confirmed near school

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality identified four acres in Blair Township as a contamination site for a known contaminant called PFAS. A foam was used to suppress a fire that started in 1995 at the location formerly known as Carl's Retreading and was found to contain PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl.

GRAWN — Local health and school officials await test results to determine whether chemicals from a 1995 tire fire seeped into groundwater near a school.

Michigan Department of Environment Quality officials confirmed a four-acre contamination site containing the chemicals perfluoralkyl and polyfluoroalkyl — or PFAS — 900 feet west of Blair Elementary School, according to a Grand Traverse County Health Department press release issued Thursday.

Carl’s Retreading, a scrap tire collection and recycling site, once operated at the site. A tire fire sparked in a tire shredding machine in late 1995 and burned for weeks. Officials used aqueous film forming foam, which contains PFAS, in attempts to douse the flames, the press release indicates.

State sampling efforts completed in May confirmed PFAS in the site’s groundwater. Personnel from the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team and the county health department’s environmental health division continue working to identify drinking water wells that could be impacted, including Blair Elementary School’s water supply.

Personnel completed drinking water sampling at Blair Elementary School and another nearby homes July 16. Results could be returned next week, according to the press release.

“At this point, we don’t know the extent of the PFAS plume from the site,” said Dan Thorell, Grand Traverse County Health Department environmental health director. “Really, it’s a lot of unknowns at this point.”

Effects of consuming the potentially contaminated water joins the list of unanswered questions, Thorell said.

He pointed to ongoing research that suggests PFAS consumption can cause conditions like elevated cholesterol, fertility problems in women, high blood pressure and infants born with low birth weights.

Thorell referenced Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry information that cites studies suggesting PFAS affects growth, learning and behavior in infants and children; increases cancer risks; interferes with hormones; and affects the immune system.

But Thorell said officials still do not know whether testing on the wells will show contamination. Health department and Traverse City Area Public Schools officials said they will be prepared if tests come back positive.

Superintendent Paul Soma said clean drinking water will be made available to students once they return to classes in September, regardless of whether officials determine the school’s water supply is contaminated.

“That is our plan no matter what,” he said.

This scare sparked new conversations that could lead school officials to consider connecting to the municipal water supply, rather than continuing to draw from the well, Soma said. Such consideration will move forward quickly should samples prove positive for those contaminants, he said.

District schools undergo a “very extensive” annual testing for more than 100 contaminants, Soma said, from bacterias and nitrates, to lead and various chemicals. Health officials did not require TCAPS personnel test for PFAS, he said.

Health department officials quickly will look to state officials for funding to pay for bottled water and filters for those affected, should the samples come back positive for PFAS, Thorell said. Connecting the school to the municipal water system would be a long-term solution, he said.

He recommends those living near the plume drink and cook with bottled water until the results come back.

A DEQ official did not immediately return call requesting comment, but shared information outlining DEQ cleanup efforts at the site. That includes hauling about 36,000 tons of scrap tire in 2002 and 2003; excavating and removing 86,000 tons of contaminated soil, ash and tire debris; and other “remediation activities.”

DEQ Sampling efforts in May discovered the contamination.

Thorell expects additional sampling to occur in the near future to determine the extent of the plume. He said up to 35 homes in the area access that well. The DEQ information shows officials will sample those wells next month.

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