The first step toward fixing a problem is recognizing there is a problem in the first place.
Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen state regulators fully embrace recommended fixes to their public notification processes when they suspect PFAS contamination sites may be poisoning residential drinking water wells.
In fact, the state bureaucracy’s introspection only occurred because a Record-Eagle investigation exposed procedures employed by the Michigan PFAS Response Team allowed people living near a contamination site in Traverse City to drink tainted water for more than eight months after regulators had flagged their homes as at risk for exposure.
We could’ve predicted change would be both slow and contentious after agency officials responded to the revelations by claiming they followed sound scientific procedures. That not telling dozens of people they may be drinking, cooking with and bathing in water laced with toxic chemicals emanating from a nearby airport and military installation was somehow for their benefit.
Hundreds of pages of communications between regulators and agency administrators following exposure of their flawed process show an unsurprising but disappointing focus on explaining away their mistakes instead of fixing the system. Why not direct such vim and vigor toward implementing a common-sense notification mechanism to ensure people who live near contamination sites don’t unnecessarily consume tainted water for a single day after regulators suspect their wells are at risk?
Thankfully, both the people impacted and the wider public rejected the bureaucrats’ excuses for placing procedure ahead of public health.
During the past year we watched a frustratingly slow process of review and a few revisions to state agency policies that guide investigations into sites where officials believe PFAS — otherwise known as “forever chemicals” — have seeped into the ground and potentially into drinking water aquifers.
In July, a working group made up of Michigan residents, many of them touched by PFAS contamination sites discovered in recent years, submitted a bevy of recommended reforms to state agency administrators. And in September MPART Executive Director Abigail Hendershott said some of the group’s recommendations had been implemented, including proactive testing for homes near some contamination sites, and increased notification efforts.
Yet, state regulators seem reluctant to install truly proactive notification procedures. Why should discussions with polluters and owners of polluted properties precede dispatches to the people who may be unknowingly exposing themselves to those pollutants?
The bureaucratic inertia simply doesn’t make any sense. Holding back really doesn’t benefit anyone — save maybe the folks who tainted the groundwater Michiganders collectively own — so why not err on the side of radical transparency when regulators launch an investigation? Is there really any down side to giving people a chance to protect themselves?
That’s where those internal communications help clarify what’s really happening inside the regulatory agencies that were erected to protect us all. Those internal discussions, the ones that wouldn’t have seen the light of day if not for records requests from a Record-Eagle reporter, indicate some inside our government may be more concerned with explaining away their mistakes than addressing systemic shortcomings.
Some simply don’t seem to see a problem with their decisions to leave Traverse City residents in the dark about potential chemical contamination in their water.
And refusing to recognize the problem dooms us to half measures and faux fixes.