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Fixing PFAS notification problems shouldn’t take discussion

They just don’t get it.

Weeks ago, after a Record-Eagle reporter unearthed a massive procedural flaw in how state and local officials disseminate information about possible drinking water contamination, we called for a swift, common-sense solution.

Unfortunately, what’s unfolding isn’t swift, a solution or common sense.

Our stomachs dropped to the floor when we learned residents in East Bay Township were allowed to obliviously continue drinking their well water for eight months after state and local officials had flagged their homes as at-risk for PFAS chemical contamination emanating from the nearby airport property. In the end, 18 home drinking water wells tested positive for the chemicals, at least one of them showed toxins at 80 times safety thresholds set in state law.

When questioned, state and local officials engaged in a grotesque form of scientific gaslighting, claiming their efforts to preserve residents’ ignorance was meant to avoid panic.

When their actions landed in the public spotlight, those same officials muddled through some half-hearted apologies, and tossed in the pandemic as an added excuse for the delay in telling residents they may be drinking poisoned water.

We were left wondering which explanation for the delay we should believe — was the lag necessary because the people drinking suspect water can’t be trusted to make health decisions for themselves? Or were they just victims of a pandemic-induced bureaucratic hiccup?

Well, we know a little more now, and we have less reason to trust what they’ve said.

It’s now clear the policy of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to keep people in the dark about potential contaminants in their drinking water isn’t new. Homeowners who live near previously- discovered PFAS contamination sites said they also were allowed to drink contaminated water for months before state regulators raised alarm. Their experiences occurred long before the pandemic became a crutch for slow-working bureaucracies.

But the delays aren’t uniform. In Grayling, for instance, regulators acted quickly to notify residents whose wells were at risk, test their tap water and provide safe water supplies while samples were being analyzed.

Such a proactive reaction shows state regulators have been involved with common-sense efforts before, so they needn’t look far for an example of a job well done.

Unfortunately, it appears state leaders can’t or won’t take the simplest path to a solution that would serve and protect public health of Michiganders.

Instead, they assigned away their responsibility to fix department policy to a subcommittee of a volunteer working group with the muted power of generating recommendations.

Worse, the first pair of subcommittee meetings to discuss public notification and transparent communication about PFAS contamination sites were unannounced and occurred behind closed doors.

It’s apparent state leaders, the ones who could unilaterally fix the problem they created, simply aren’t that committed to doing the right thing. They seem to need the cover of a recommendation from a working group instead of simply acknowledging their mistake and fixing the systemic flaw they created.

None of what we’ve witnessed thus far gives us hope.

Because if our leaders can’t see the fault in their actions, our problems run much deeper than we thought.

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