After stories began to emerge in late 2017 that tannery wastes had contaminated the Rogue River, customers at nearby Rockford Brewing Co. started expressing concern about the safety of drinking the beer.
Even though Rockford Brewing was connected to municipal water, which has tested non-detect for the PFAS family contaminants over four rounds of testing, the brewery still faced a possible PR crisis, said co-owner Seth Rivard.
“We had customers who would not drink the water but would have a beer, and vice versa,” he said, noting both came from the same source. “I was worried that it would hurt our business. People were asking about PFAS daily even though we didn’t have any.”
Still, Rivard said he could understand the association: The brewery is located about 1,500 feet south of Wolverine World Wide Inc.’s former tannery on the Rogue River, which today is the epicenter of the attention to PFAS contamination.
The issue stems from footwear and apparel maker Wolverine’s use of water- and stain-repellent Scotchgard, a 3M Co. chemical that contains related chemicals PFOS and PFOA. In tests, groundwater near the tannery showed PFOS and PFOA concentrations of 490,000 parts per trillion, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory for lifetime exposure to PFOA and PFOS from drinking water is 70 parts per trillion.
“To me, zero is the only acceptable number,” said Rivard, who lives in nearby Plainfield Charter Township, where water sources tested positive for PFAS. The township later installed a granular activated carbon (GAC) filter to remove the chemical from the water supply.
“My family was drinking it for years and I’m not really happy about that,” he said.
Because their products rely on the availability of clean water, members of Michigan’s brewing industry have been at the forefront of calling for the protection of the state’s drinking water, whether in regard to PFAS or other issues, like lead.
For example, more than a dozen Michigan breweries joined the Great Lakes Business Network, whose stated goal is to decommission Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac.
For Bell’s Brewery Inc. owner Larry Bell, the issue comes down to preserving not only the water, which is “of paramount importance,” but also the reputation of hundreds of Michigan companies that rely on water for products or tourism.
“We are currently dealing with this issue due to PFAS contamination issues in a city near our main brewery in Comstock, Michigan,” Bell told a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee field hearing in Traverse City on Aug. 20.
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.
“While water from the Kalamazoo system remains clean, our customers both in state and out of state have been concerned because of the contamination of water in Parchment, Michigan, which abuts Kalamazoo,” he said. “Due to the state of PFAS issues around the state, as well as the issue of lead in the water in Flint, our state has been gaining the reputation for having bad water. This is not the type of thing that makes us comfortable in the brewing business.”
While PFAS remains an emerging issue for the craft brewing industry, the state and national trade associations are just starting to understand the possible effects that the chemical contaminant could have on the sector.
The Michigan Brewers Guild includes as part of its mission maintaining the quality of raw materials, including water.
“Michigan breweries have a strategic advantage by operating in a region with an abundant supply of clean, fresh water and breweries rely on that water to succeed now and in the future,” Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild, said in an email to MiBiz. “Any disruption in the supply of clean water would be devastating to our thriving brewing industry and it is critical that we preserve and protect this valuable natural resource. The Michigan Brewers Guild is opposed to any policy, industry or infrastructure that threatens the security of the water supply in our state.”
Meanwhile, Paul Gatza, senior vice president of the professional brewing division of the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, said the group has not yet focused specifically on PFAS, but he does expect it to come up in the future.
“I don’t think PFAS are on the radar screen of many (brewers), although clean water is,” Gatza said in an email to MiBiz, noting it would be “premature to try to foretell” what action the association might take in the future on the issue.
If breweries were to face high levels of PFAS in their water source, it could not only harm their position in the marketplace, but also come at a considerable cost to correct.
Among options including GAC and ion exchange treatment, the EPA says on its website that reverse osmosis filtration is “extremely effective at removing PFAS.” However, the cost to implement a reverse osmosis system with enough flow to supply a small production brewery would run into the tens of thousands of dollars, according to industry sources.
At Rockford Brewing, Rivard said the reaction from consumers has died off considerably in recent months, especially after the company went to lengths to communicate with consumers and educate them about the safety of the brewery’s water supply.
“It used to be very regular for people to affiliate Rockford with all the water being contaminated with PFAS,” he said. “We had to educate people. … Now we get asked about it once a month.”
Rivard takes a pragmatic approach to the issue of PFAS and other emerging contaminants, noting that science continues to “discover all sorts of things from what we’re doing to ourselves … and the Earth over the last 100 years.” Even so, he notes modern medicine keeps making advances and finding ways to extend our lives.
“We’re just on the tip of the iceberg,” Rivard said of the findings of PFAS pollution at the former tannery site just north of his brewery. “Rockford is going to be a footnote about this contamination.”