Sometimes better late than never is the best we can do.
Because too little, too late isn’t an acceptable outcome in the effort to ensure all Michiganders have access to clean drinking water.
None of us should be subjected to poison when we turn a faucet to pour a drink or bathe our children. Yet, somehow, either through carelessness, malfeasance or mishap, throngs of our neighbors have spent extended periods consuming tainted tap water.
Decades ago, officials began raising alarm about groundwater contamination as our nation’s industrial legacy began to take a grave, visible toll on the natural world many of us so cherish. Landmark reforms, like the Clean Water Act, that followed helped many of our natural areas recuperate from years of abuse.
But much more grave ramifications of that toxic legacy continue to lurk beneath our feet, often surfacing unnoticed as water flows from our taps.
Drinking water contamination is a problem that touches many Michiganders from all walks of life. Urban, rural, rich, poor, we all need clean water.
It’s an especially difficult issue to address in the state’s rural reaches, including in the Grand Traverse region.
In cities and larger population centers, where municipal water systems serve hundreds or sometimes thousands of homes, regular testing helps ensure water supplies meet at least basic purity standards set by state and national government agencies. That testing, when the system works properly, helps ensure clean water for millions. It’s an imperfect mechanism that failed catastrophically during the Flint water crisis.
Yet, despite clear flaws that injured an entire city, the oversight for such population centers is far more comprehensive than what the state’s rural residents enjoy.
Drinking water monitoring is all but nonexistent in regions that stretch from our city borders to Lake Superior. That’s because there are few, if any, requirements that individual homeowners regularly test their water wells for contaminants. Some run basic tests when a home is sold — monitoring that attempts to detect problems with septic systems or pre-existing arsenic contamination — and many household water supplies go decades or longer without a second look.
Meanwhile, regulators continue to discover new sources of chemical contamination in groundwater aquifers.
The latest evidence of that threat is the discovery of per- and polyflouroalkyl substances in water supplies in hundreds of locations across Michigan. The contamination is the result of a variety of activities ranging from manufacturing processes to firefighting foam, and health experts suspect exposure is tied to a number of significant health issues, including cancer.
In the case of Grayling, a massive plume of groundwater and surface water contamination originated from decades of liberal use of firefighting foam at the Michigan Army National Guard’s Camp Grayling.
A pair of voluminous documents produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show the toxic foam was used across the base for training and firefighting. The chemicals also were sprayed on roads to control dust.
All that foam added up to one big problem by the time a staffer at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality delivered a 90-plus page report in 2012 warning officials that many Michiganders who live near major contamination sites may be unknowingly suffering significant exposure to the chemicals.
Army National Guard officials wouldn’t test for and find PFAS contamination in Grayling until 2016, four years after that first warning.
We can’t be certain more stringent testing regimens for home water wells would’ve caught the contamination earlier, but we can use the crisis we face today to shape future protections.
And a good place for state officials to start would be adopting new, more stringent standards regulating such chemicals in drinking water.
Because every Michigander deserves access to clean drinking water.