TRAVERSE CITY — A proposal to use land bank dollars as a safety net to remediate PFAS-tainted water wells in an East Bay Township neighborhood got a majority vote — but, because of rules governing special meetings, did not pass.
Grand Traverse County commissioners will not offer financial security by way of county land bank dollars to provide impacted residents municipal water connections should grant dollars fall short of total costs.
Health officials noted at least five impacted homes in the Pine Grove neighborhood won’t qualify for state grant dollars.
The idea was voted down despite the favorable 3-2 tally because four votes are required for special meeting motions, and two commissioners did not attend — commissioners Betsy Coffia and Addison “Sonny” Wheelock Jr.
Board chairman Rob Hentschel and commissioners Brad Jewett and Bryce Hundley supported the effort, which Hentschel had pitched to the board.
Commissioner Gordie LaPointe, who represents the neighborhood on the board, and Commissioner Ron Clous cast the negative votes.
‘Treating us like numbers’
Hilerie Rettelle, whose home returned the second-highest PFAS contamination screening, said she feels “overwhelmed and very frustrated” by the county’s lack of action as she broke down into tears during a phone call with a Record-Eagle reporter.
“I feel like they are treating us like numbers and not like humans living with this contamination,” Rettelle said after Wednesday’s online meeting.
Grand Traverse County commissioners spent two hours talking about ways to financially “back up” East Bay Township residents who want to quickly connect to the municipal water system. The residents recently learned their drinking water wells are contaminated with PFAS chemicals through a state investigation.
East Bay Township Supervisor Beth Friend said they seem poised to be awarded the requested state grant, but there is no guarantee.
If not awarded, she said the expenses will fall to the homeowners who can pay the bill off over the course of five years, perhaps 10 years, if township leaders agree.
Friend explained state rules require a competitive bidding process that must be followed to use state money, and the fastest construction could begin and be paid for by the state would be toward the end of December.
Friend said should county officials want to provide “gap funding” to cover what the potential grant won’t, she recommended they “maximize state funds before using local dollars.”
Dan Thorell, environmental health director for the county’s health department, said 15 of 18 known drinking water wells have so far been tested and all showed some level of PFAS contamination. He reported seven returned results beyond maximum state drinking water levels, while three had at least 50 percent of those limits — qualifying for state grant funds.
However, at least five homes that tested positive for lower levels of PFAS chemicals will not be covered by state grant dollars, Thorell told the board.
He said three homes have yet to receive water tests.
In the end, Hentschel suggested the use of county home rehabilitation trust fund dollars to cover gaps in state grant funding expected to help pay for connection costs for impacted homes. He limited that amount to no more than $180,000 in his motion.
Hentschel called it “back stop” funding for the township on this project.
Others agreed with him.
“I want to make sure people are free from contamination,” Hundley said.
But not all on the board were convinced.
“For whatever reason these folks have chosen to remain on wells,” LaPointe said.
He explained he was concerned with county dollars being used because it would set a bad precedent. LaPointe also said township and health department officials have the issue “well in hand,” homeowners can pay costs over multiple years and those impacted have “been living with this for year and years and years.”
“I just don’t see the point of it,” he said. “It’s too vague, too general, too typical government.”
Clous said he was unwilling to provide county funds for this particular project.
“I think it’s just something we need to keep our noses out of until it’s proven they need help from us,” Clous said.
Jewett said he was willing to wait several weeks to see how the grant application progresses, but ultimately voted Wednesday in favor of the use of county funds.
Rettelle told the commissioners she was disappointed in their lack of action.
“We are all human beings and all deserve to have clean, running water, especially during the holidays,” she said.
Rettelle said she hopes the board revisits the question in January when her new commissioner will be seated — commissioner-elect Darryl Nelson — whose idea officials said it was to use county land bank money.
Pam Morrison, another impacted Pine Grove neighborhood resident, said she took offense to the characterization of those on well water as having made that choice and the accompanying implication their PFAS exposure is therefore their own fault.
“I, too, am disappointed to keep hearing about those of us not choosing to hook up,” she said, adding many bought their homes in years subsequent to when the neighborhood was piped for public water.
“Please stop making that comment,” Morrison said. “You are implying we are idiots.”
Rettelle agreed with Morrison’s offense.
“That’s insulting,” she said.
Thorell said filtration systems ordered for the impacted homes are expected to arrive this week and be installed in the coming couple of weeks.
Those with exceptionally high levels of PFAS chemicals in their well water will be offered the opportunity to have five-gallon water cooler jugs delivered instead of using the filtration system to be installed at kitchen sinks, he said.
Friend said the township will publish its request for bids during the first week of December with an expected deadline on Dec. 18. A special meeting on Dec. 21 may see a construction contract awarded, she said.
However, Friend warned the Christmas and New Year’s holidays should be expected to impact how quickly a contractor can get started on the work.
Commissioners Coffia and Wheelock were unable to be reached after the meeting.