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Data, transparency and listening key to rebuilding trust in Michigan's drinking water, Part 1

Testing for PFAS in the lab.

This is the first of a two-part series on rebuilding trust in Michigan’s drinking water.

"Toxic tap water" was a frequent and frightening news headline in Michigan after the discovery of lead in Flint's drinking water in 2014. The discovery of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the drinking water of several communities throughout the state in 2017 further contributed to this crisis of confidence in the state's drinking water.

This was the challenge the Michigan Department Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) found itself facing in early 2018. EGLE needed to regain the public's trust in their drinking water.

Two years later, the city of Flint is very close to completing the removal of lead service lines and consistently meets state and federal drinking water standards thanks to Michigan's strictest-in-the-nation lead and copper rule. This testing data is establishing a track record of improving water quality and slowly restoring public trust.

Michigan is also now recognized as a national leader in responding to the issue of PFAS contamination because Michigan did something no other state or the federal government has yet dared to do. Michigan tested almost every community water system and schools on their own water system in the state for PFAS and published the results.

In another first, Michigan this year is on a path to establish some of the nation's most well-researched and comprehensive drinking water standards for PFAS.

This change in public perception and trust wasn't the product of PR or spin. It was the result of disciplined analytical work and a communications strategy built around four key elements: facts, action, transparency, and listening.

Facts Still Matter

With public trust in drinking water supplies state-wide at an all-time low, EGLE needed to take decisive action to better define the problem and aggressively address it.

As part of its role within the newly created Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), EGLE in 2018 launched a $1.7 million sampling program that tested of every community water supply and schools with their own water supply in the state for PFAS. No state in the nation had ever attempted such a study.

The data collected from this testing program demonstrated that 97% of the state's public and school drinking water was either PFAS-free or only contained trace amounts of this contaminant. Injecting data into the PFAS issue quickly redefined the extent of the problem for millions of Michiganders.

Drawing on its strength as a science-based and data-driven organization, EGLE also facilitated a new dialogue about lead in drinking water through the implementation of Michigan's strictest-in-the-nation Lead and Copper Rule (LCR).

In Flint, for example, EGLE compiled testing data from six consecutive monitoring periods demonstrating that Flint's water had met state and federal requirements for three years in a row and continued to meet standards even under the state's tougher new lead rules.

Data Drives Action

Although organizations can get criticized for "studying an issue to death," EGLE's data-driven approach to PFAS and lead has paved the way for early successes in the agency's mission to protect the public from unknown drinking water contamination.

For example, EGLE's carefully planned and execuited testing program quickly uncovered high levels of PFAS in the drinking water of Parchment, Michigan, allowing state agencies within the MPART taskforce to swing into action and provide more than 3,000 people with alternative drinking water within 24 hours. The response effort resulted in a permanent connection to nearby Kalamazoo's uncontaminated municipal water system.

On a statewide level, Michigan has harnessed the latest science and an independent panel of experts to be among the first in the nation to recommend health-based values for PFAS in drinking water. Those standards, currently moving through the state's rule-making process, will help fill the gap created by the lack of progress toward a national PFAS standard that would protect public health.

This data-driven approach is also being used to effectively implement Michigan's new lead standards. Previously undetected releases from lead service lines are being detected through the state's enhanced testing procedures allowing local authorities to target individual homes for filters and accelerated lead service line replacement.

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