Hillerie Rettelle was angry but not surprised after reading state environmental regulators’ behind-the-scenes justifications to delay notifying her that her water well could be contaminated with PFAS.
Rettelle lives in the East Bay Township’s Pine Grove neighborhood — a quiet place nestled adjacent to Traverse City’s commercial airport and U.S. Coast Guard air station — in one of 18 homes in the path of an underground PFAS plume.
Residents learned groundwater monitoring wells returned results signaling PFAS contamination from historic use of chemical firefighting foam at the facilities in October 2020 — eight months after state officials flagged the homes at risk.
The state response to Rettelle’s critique — as her family continued to consume the potential cancer-causing in those months — and her flag on the bureaucratic process are detailed in a Record-Eagle Freedom of Information Act request. The 160-document request details justifications for the delay, as well as talking points, protective memos and selective redactions that don’t sit well with Rettelle.
Her family should have had the choice to turn off the tap when health officials suspected a problem, she said.
“I stand by what I’ve always thought: They should have notified us right away and given us the option of whether to drink our water while they tested,” Rettelle said. “If I had to buy bottled water until they tested and got results, so be it. But it would’ve been my choice.”
Eventually all 18 Pine Grove residential water wells tested positive for PFAS chemicals, including nine beyond state criteria for pollution cleanup. The contaminants are known to harm human health.
Rettelle and a neighbor first told the Record-Eagle in February how they were shocked and angered when they realized how much time elapsed before anyone warned them of the risk to their families from their own water faucets.
Public backlash was swift and loud: Local officials and water conservation advocates decried the delayed public notice, and a statewide panel of citizens launched a months-long effort to convince regulators to act faster to warn people of the health dangers.
Records released in response to a FOIA request show the published article prompted a flurry of emails among dozens of state environmental, health and administrative workers over the course of several weeks.
Much of the dialogue focused on defending officials’ handling of the investigation and measuring their response against other entities like the airport or military.
They built timelines of events and justified protocols that demanded “actionable testing data” before telling the public a PFAS probe was launched.
“I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it because that is asinine,” Rettelle said. “To have that many people spend that much time on a basic timeline — what a waste of time — instead of figuring out how to make it better for the future. They wasted their time creating a timeline of everything they did right in their own eyes.”
And Rettelle isn’t the only one angered by details revealed in the raft of records released — about 160 documents and hundreds of pages of memos, emails and talking points.
Troy-based lawyer Tony Spaniola, a PFAS advocate and member of a state citizens’ advisory workgroup on the issue, said he’s outraged after reviewing the FOIA response for which state officials charged the Record-Eagle more than $700.
“These documents show the state embarked upon a process to discredit the Record-Eagle’s reporting and concerns of the local citizens,” he said.
Michigan PFAS Action Response Team’s citizens’ advisory group took up the delayed public notice issue after the newspaper’s reporting and spent five months this year crafting recommendations on how state agencies can do a better job of keeping the public aware.
Spaniola said it’s “appalling and reprehensible” to discover how much state time was spent justifying the lack of swift public notice in East Bay Township, especially given the gravity the citizens’ advisory group gave the matter.
“It shouldn’t take this long. It shouldn’t be this hard. They tell us they don’t have enough staff and then the staff spends this much time doing this,” Spaniola said.
State department heads said the flurry of email communications and timeline-building was part of the internal review process, this time accentuated by an “after action review” of the case.
It’s all part of the agency’s internal introspection, they said.
Abby Hendershott, MPART’s executive director, said state employees’ time discussing the news coverage was important to her agency’s processes.
“I would turn it around a little bit and say that in order to truly understand it you’ve got to look at it from all angles and analyze what were the shortcomings, what were the successes and then build out based on the successes,” she said.
Liesl Clark, director of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, echoed Hendershott and said it is important for state employees to communicate and be critical of steps taken.
“We are very human like everybody else which means we are messy and imperfect. And so, figuring out how to serve our 10 million bosses better comes from making sure that we’ve looked at these types of things and that we’ve understood where we feel the process could have gone differently,” she said. “And we look at it, and we face that, have that conversation, and think about how are we going to improve processes, how are we going to improve what we do in the future.”
But not every email released was purely reflective.
For example, the first internal email about the Record-Eagle’s reporting on Rettelle’s criticism of the eight-month delay in public notice of the PFAS exposure risks for her neighborhood came from former MPART leader Steve Sliver: “Once again, turning good news to bad,” he wrote.
Sliver sent the email to strategic communications advisor Scott Dean at 7:09 a.m. on Feb. 28, 39 minutes after the article posted to the newspaper’s website.
About three weeks later, Sliver sent another email as part of a group thread discussing the East Bay Township investigation timeline that suggested an addition be made to the chronology that reflected a press release sent out in early July last year about grant dollars awarded to Cherry Capital Airport to investigate potential PFAS contamination.
“This is not direct notification to the residential well owners, but does represent a multi-media approach to notify communities across the state about the PFAS investigations before they began,” Sliver wrote on March 20.
Spaniola said he found state officials’ explanations for the amount of time spent on the internal talk to be disingenuous.
“I don’t see it as a process of self-reflection. I see it as a process of rationalization and justification,” he said. “Essentially proving EGLE was right and the local citizens were wrong.”
Spaniola pointed to emails released to the Record-Eagle regarding comments made by Grayling Township Supervisor Lacey Stephan in a past article.
At least a dozen emails among just as many state environment, health and veterans affairs officials in the two days after the article published discussed whether Stephan’s recollections of certain events could be true.
Stephan said he’s not concerned in the least about his comments sparking debate, he said.
“I’m not worried about pleasing some bureaucrat interesting in keeping their job. I just care about clean water to our residents,” he said.
“They thought it was important and they are concerned about what the public thinks,” Stephan said. “What makes me lose sleep at night is a pregnant woman who may be drinking water with PFAS in it without knowing it.”
Clark acknowledged that not every state worker makes perfect decisions about where to spend time, and she’s cognizant of their collective responsibility to the public.
“We are paid with taxpayer dollars and first and foremost the actions that we take, the activities that we take in our capacity has to be responsive to the people that we serve,” she said.
Dean, whose emails often appeared in the FOIA response, said part of his job is to investigate all the elements of any news article that can generate more questions from the public.
“If I see something that doesn’t track with my knowledge of what MPART’s been doing, it’s incumbent on me to research it and to find the answers so when people have questions based on a few column inches of a story, they can have the entirety of the facts and what we’ve done,” Dean said.
But the time spent on all that timeline-building and talking point creation isn’t the only thing than incensed Rettelle.
State officials used an exemption in Michigan’s FOIA to redact the deliberative portions of emails in which workers commented how the East Bay PFAS investigation may have been improved.
However, they released deliberative sections of the emails that praised state employees’ actions.
“So much for transparency,” Rettelle said. “They are going to be transparent about what they think they did right, but not what they think they could have done better? If you messed up, be an adult and say you messed up. People will have more respect if you own up to it.”
Comments on the case submitted by Andy Draheim, Clark’s chief of staff, were released under FOIA. He warned those in the email thread his comments were sure to sound “smart ass” and as a “devil’s advocate.”
Draheim wrote that “for the most part, our timeline, approach, actions seem appropriate, sensible, defensible, etc. — or even a couple gradations more positive than those words ... wise protective of public health, etc.
The steps make logical sense and follow relatively quickly from one to the next without big delays. And BTW, Sliver had me 100% convinced when he responded on this topic to the environmental stakeholders on the quarterly call the other day.
“Here’s the one place where I suggest we dig in, reflect, and converse:”
The next 30 lines of Draheim’s email are redacted. In another email, officials redacted the entirety of the after action review comments submitted by Tracy Kecskemeti, EGLE’s Materials Management Division assistant director.
Clark said she wasn’t involved in making redactions to the Record-Eagle’s FOIA request, so she couldn’t speak to why certain deliberative portions of emails were released and others withheld.
“Obviously, we’ve got a big team and I have a pretty talented team. Again, like when it comes to local decision-making, trying to push things down to the level closest to the problem, we do the same thing at the department and try to have the decisions made by the people that are closest to it,” she said. “I will say that I think that it’s really important for our team to be critical of each other and be critical of the steps that we take and I encourage us to do that.”
Officials said EGLE’s Karen Idlin, Information Management Division manager, performed the FOIA review and redactions.
Dean said redactions are allowed for deliberative discussions when “encouraging frank communication between officials and employees of public bodies clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
“The absence of this provision in the law would have a chilling effect on staff’s ability to have a robust exchange of ideas in the service of making better decisions and better protecting public health and the environment,” Dean said, adding the Record-Eagle may appeal the FOIA’s partial denial.
Last month, CAWG members learned how many of their recommendations the state adopted, including whether to hasten public notice efforts at the start of PFAS investigations.
Hendershott said officials began parts of the public notification recommendations, but not yet all.
She said every new site prompts state officials to rapidly contact local health department, government and legislative representatives to plan town hall sessions; in some cases, residential wells are tested even before they have more than a strong suspicion of PFAS problems — like at airport sites.
Spaniola said that means state officials are getting to “actionable data” sooner, which is good but not enough. The CAWG called for immediate notice to possibly impacted residents and more widespread public awareness through press releases, he said.
Hendershott said MPART will continue to implement public notice changes, not just those required by law. “The process is definitely open — especially for MPART — these processes are definitely open for improvement.”
Rettelle said she certainly hopes state officials strive to do better than they did for her. That’s what her and everyone else’s tax dollars are meant to ensure, she said.
“I’m paying for them to do things on my behalf, my family. To protect me, my family and all of us here in East Bay Township.”