The city of Portage provides municipal water to 95 percent of its 48,500 residents. As such, City Manager Larry Shaffer said clean water is a fundamental aspect of keeping residents safe. Most of the up to 5 million gallons of water produced daily comes from groundwater. In 2018, the city found levels of PFAS in its drinking water that were below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion and in response shut down three of its wells. Shaffer spoke with MiBiz about the challenges communities face in informing the public without causing panic and continuing to monitor PFAS and other contaminants, even though most aspects of regulation and remediation are out of cities’ hands.
While Portage now tests at non-detectable levels of PFAS, how are you monitoring to make sure the water continues to be safe?
We went out and hired our own testing firm rather than rely on the state’s firm, only because we want to make sure that we have our information. Both of our tests came back at non-detect levels. We’re going to continue to test and keep testing every month or so, so that we know what’s going on in all of our wells for PFAS. As we learn more about it, and if we get to those levels that even approach 70 and we have to turn out wells that have detected any level of PFAS, then we’ll start to look at treatment options. … If we have to, we’ll start to treat for PFAS.
Why has PFAS only become an issue recently?
Heretofore, you didn’t have the capacity to test down to the levels that you can test to today. … If you don’t know it exists, you can’t very well treat for it. Fundamentally, the testing capabilities have improved dramatically that allow you to detect PFAS at those ridiculous numbers. It’s like finding one grain of sand on a South Haven beach. It’s just incredibly sensitive — from my perspective, almost mind-blowing detection capabilities. … Having those new testing protocols that achieved such precision is really what’s driving this whole discussion today. In the past, we just didn’t know it existed.
How should a community determine when to act on PFAS?
If you talk to our health experts, they really don’t think we should be comfortable with it at any level, notwithstanding the fact that the EPA has established 70 parts per trillion.
Even though non-detect levels were found in Portage, do residents still have fears about the water system?
Absolutely, and those fears are not unfounded. There’s more than just PFAS that’s threatening our public health through water. PFAS happens to be kind of the flavor of the month, but there’s plenty of other substances that are getting in the groundwater that are a public health threat.
Besides testing, what else can local governments do to keep an eye on water safety?
Protecting groundwater as a state, as a county, as a municipality, I don’t know if there’s anything more important for the future of our community. PFAS is one element, and it’s an important one and a dangerous one, one that we’ve got to stay on top of. It’s not one that’s going to go away. It’s not something where we just rub our hands and say, ‘That’s it for that. We don’t have to worry about PFAS anymore.’ We have to stay alert to it. It will be a constant topic for us going forward. We need to make sure it’s always at the top of our list in terms of our priorities. There can’t be anything more important than the quality of water and its protection.
Michigan’s handling of past chemical contamination incidents offers perspective on what it’s going to take to clean up the state’s PFAS problems. Expect it to take decades, billions of dollars and some awkward dances of cooperation.
Reporting on PFAS to date has focused mostly on environmental concerns and pointing blame at the companies and organizations that have discharged the emerging contaminant into water supplies.
MiBiz's three-part series will go beyond the heated rhetoric to offer a dose of reality about how to handle the complex challenges stemming from the equally complex chemical.
What can Portage do to help businesses around the issue of water quality?
All of our industries have requirements on the materials that they’re utilizing in their processes and to notify us of those processes. … Discharge off site from a private entity can’t happen without the necessary permits. The city of Portage does not own a wastewater treatment plant. The wastewater treatment plant is owned by the city of Kalamazoo, so all the sewage that is generated in Portage ends up in Kalamazoo at the plant. That plant manages and controls for all industrial entities.
What safeguards does the city have in place to deal with industrial contaminants?
We had a whistleblower come into the city about two years ago to report that one of the individuals at a manufacturing plant had been discharging certain elements into floor drains, which in turn discharged directly into the ground. We turned that in immediately to the county. We brought in the DEQ. They went out, conducted their investigations, issued their reports, issued their orders, and made a correction. We don’t have our own department of environmental quality, so the state handles that, and the county is also responsible for groundwater conditions.
Does the city have any resources or grants to provide businesses help with water issues?
No, we don’t. There’s no grant. There’s only one way to remediate and that’s to take it to a water treatment plant. A private property owner can’t remediate PFAS down to the levels you’d need to. That requires an industrialization of water treatment that’s just not achievable at a small business level.
At the end of the day, what should businesses know about dealing with PFAS?
The long and the short of it is this isn’t a one off. It isn’t that we just do this today from a snapshot perspective. It has to be part of an ongoing, continuous and high priority effort to ensure that the quality of water remains very, very high. We know that high quality water is threatened not only from PFAS, but from dozens and dozens of other conditions that are as dangerous or even more so than PFAS.
Interview conducted and condensed by Sydney Smith.