PFAS draw concerns of ‘environmental stigma’


Joe Berlin

A local environmental remediation expert who lives in Rockford said ongoing testing of the water supply for contaminants has neighbors on edge.

Joe Berlin, president of Grand Rapids-based BLDI Environmental Engineering, said his firm handles cleanup of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) mainly at decommissioned military sites.

BLDI is not affiliated with the ongoing testing of contaminated groundwater in Rockford related to footwear manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide’s disposal of 3M Scotchgard byproducts from its leather tanning operations in the 1960s.

But Berlin noted Wolverine is not the only company grappling with fallout from using products decades ago that are now known to be contaminants.

“Everybody’s talking about PFAS. On the international level, it’s an area of significant focus. Australia’s way ahead of us on this,” Berlin said.

“At the state level, they’re still trying to get their hands on Rockford’s issues. Does it migrate? Does it react within the aquifer with different compounds?”

The instances his firm has discovered of contamination at other sites stem from foam-based fire retardants containing PFAS that were used by fire departments to quell massive blazes at airline or vehicle crash sites prior to the 1980s.

“It was a fairly common thing when my dad was a firefighter,” he said. “Now, we know it’s harmful.”

PFAS also are present at some decommissioned Michigan bases or rural sites where military units used to set controlled blazes in order to test fire retardants. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level for PFAS is 70 parts per trillion. Using this standard, Wolverine and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have declared the water at the Rockford sites tested so far as “well below this level.”

Berlin said when testing groundwater samples, it’s much easier to get a false positive (there is groundwater contamination from PFAS) than a false negative (there is no contamination).

“False positives are where (PFAS are) detected, but they’re from some other source, like the Teflon in a pipe fitting, the fabric softener on clothes. So that would be from something other than contaminated groundwater,” he said.

“But if you’re a homeowner, and you get a positive sample, you’re always wondering, ‘Is it my groundwater?’”

Although residents might not be aware of this, West Michigan groundwater is particularly susceptible to absorption of contaminants, Berlin said.

“We have the largest unconfined aquifer in the world in West Michigan — water percolates from the top and recharges it,” he said. “The water table tends to be shallow. If it’s good-tasting, that means it’s unconfined. Confined water is where it got trapped by the clay years ago. On the east side of the state, they have stinky, sulfur water because it’s confined.”

Berlin said 2.5 million Michiganders use groundwater for their drinking supply, which puts those near unconfined aquifers more at risk.

“In West Michigan, it’s unconfined. So if something is spilled, it can get into the groundwater really easily,” he said.

Berlin personally knows the environmental consultant and the attorney working with Wolverine, and he believes all parties are doing a good job working with the state and local authorities to address the problem.

“I think quite highly of them. It’s a really bad situation. I know everyone’s taking it seriously,” he said. “The state has really been assertive in working with them and pushing the envelope,” he said.

But it’s not easy being a Rockford resident right now. Neighbors and people from his church have asked him to test their wells because they are “scared” and “anxious.”

“There’s a level of distrust for everybody,” he said.

He worries the fear will have a ripple effect on the real estate market in Rockford.

“The quicker this is addressed and the more aggressively, the less impact this will have on environmental stigma (negative perceptions associated with contamination),” he said.

“We do estimates on that sometimes, on how does that add up. Talking to different realtors, if we went back six months ago and someone was looking for a house, they would look at Rockford and Forest Hills on the east side, and they would not hesitate. But now they are hesitating.”

At this point, the technology for PFAS remediation — which needs to happen if PFAS levels exceed the EPA threshold — is in its early stages.

“The technology for remediating groundwater is very limited,” he said. “There’s a couple emergent technologies we’re working on with a consultant, Chris Nelson, at eMinus out of Colorado Springs. It would remove the PFAS in the groundwater itself.

“(Unlike) what normally happens on a lot of these systems … this would treat it in the unit itself. The other units are pumping the water, running it through filters and putting it into a river. The systems run for a long time, and the concentrations eventually reach a steady state. But this unit actually works at the source level.”

Early trial runs have been promising. But Berlin said the best way to be safe from PFAS has nothing to do with cleanup technology.

“This is why people do environmental due diligence,” he said. “It’s not commonly done in residential. But with a subdivision, I’m not sure why the developer didn’t do it.”

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