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Fast Five with Abigail Hendershott, new MPART executive director

Abigail Hendershott headshot(Abigail Hendershott, new Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) executive director, joins MI Environment for this Fast Five edition. The MPART executive director oversees the State's coordinated effort to address the threat of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination. The executive director serves as the chair of the MPART and coordinates closely with various federal and state agencies on PFAS initiatives.)

How long have you worked at EGLE? And what is your background?

I have a Bachelor of Science in resource development from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. I started working at the then DNR - now EGLE, as a student in 1989 for the Act 307 Section scoring sites of environmental contamination.

After graduation in 1991, I was hired by the Plainwell Office of the Environmental Response Division (later Remediation and Redevelopment Division, RRD) as a project manager.  Two years later, I transferred to the RRD (Remediation and Redevelopment Division) Grand Rapids District Office and began a job share position which allowed me to work 20 hours/ week for the next 17 years! I loved being able to continue to work and be available for our children.

By 2015, I was no longer part time and was participating in the Vapor Intrusion Technical Assistance and Program Support Team. I also had the opportunity to participate in the Great Lakes Leadership Academy through Michigan State University. In 2016, I became the Assistant District Supervisor for the RRD Grand Rapids Office, then in 2017, PFAS took over. While our district was in the middle of the Wolverine North Kent PFAS investigation, I became the Grand Rapids District Supervisor in December of 2017.

Have you always worked on RRD issues?

My project experience with RRD has been focused on state-funded cleanup projects for both Part 201 and Part 213 sites. My projects include capping an 80-acre landfill, vapor intrusion investigations at dry cleaners, excavation work at gas stations sites and demolition of an electro plating facility etc. The work at my vapor intrusion sites really emphasized the need to be highly collaborative in our understanding of problems and solutions. The relationships that were forged during my earlier investigations were key to the success of handling the Wolverine North Kent PFAS investigations.

Please describe how you first began working on PFAS issues.

Our first PFAS project in the Grand Rapids District Office was the Wolverine Tannery/House Street Disposal Area/ North Kent PFAS investigation which covers 25 square miles of investigation, the sampling of 1,700 drinking water wells, coordination with the US Environmental Protection Agency for a time-critical remedial action (for all of the non-PFAS waste), daily project coordination meetings with Wolverine, local health, Department of Health and Human Services, EGLE and local officials to keep on top of the situation. Our staff coordinated three large town halls; our second meeting had 1,000 people in person and another 200 watching in their living rooms, and we have attended at least 40 neighborhood meetings with residents. We also mobilized the RRD incident managers to establish an Incident Command Structure to help respond to calls, inspect over 110 potential Wolverine drum locations, manage the data and help coordinate the day to day work. At one point we had a dedicated team of over 25 people working on the response to this situation. You might think that this was a little much, but consider that the investigation identified 10 homes with concentrations greater than 10,000 parts per trillion (ppt)and another 14 homes with concentrations between 1,000 to 10,000 ppt. The highest concentration found in a drinking water well was 96,000 ppt. Of the 1,722 drinking water wells that were sampled, 796 had detections of PFAS.

Finally, after two years of legal negotiations, on February 19, 2020, a consent decree was approved by Judge Neff in which Wolverine World Wide paid $69.5 million dollars to hook up municipal water to over 1,000 homes and continue to provide filters and monitoring to many others.

Obviously, this project shaped how I think about PFAS and the magnitude of the damage that it can cause not only to our environment but also to our friends, family and residents.

What lessons did you learn from working on PFAS issues?

The biggest lessons that I learned from working on PFAS issues include:

  • The constant need for collaboration and communication with our partners and teams. The MPART model is built on this very premise of constant collaboration across agencies, departments, divisions, local and federal boundaries to ensure that the message is communicated and reaches the very residents that we are trying to protect. I also believe that most problems can be solved with the right team in the room to discuss and analyze the problem and the potential solutions.
  • As a leader during these PFAS investigation, I strived to develop and nurture the staff and empower them to become leaders in any situation. Across the MPART agencies and partners, I have seen staff that are so talented and have such capacity to handle the complex PFAS investigations.
  • The PFAS conundrums that we find ourselves tackling as a state are difficult, but using the MPART model with the exceptionally dedicated staff and the collaboration occurring around the state with our other Great Lake State partners, Federal partners, Environmental advocacy groups and private citizens, we can set a new standard of expectations for the eradication of PFAS use in our state. Frankly, I am excited to see what we can accomplish in the coming years with the MPART leading the way.

What are your goals as MPART executive director?

  • Promote communication, collaboration and education with our environmental partners to develop strategies for PFAS reduction and elimination in our Great Lakes area and develop a PFAS knowledge base, through investigation, research and studies that benefits the common good.
  • Gather and coordinate online information/resources for residential well owners to have knowledge about potential risks of environmental contamination; understand their personal responsibility to periodically test their wells; understand their construction, depth of well etc.
  • Continue to advance the much needed PFAS treatment technology research through collaboration with our universities and state and federal partners.

Photo caption: Abigail Hendershott headshot

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