PFAS Update: Ware Road Landfill

At the request of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the City of Lowell recently conducted sampling for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at its former landfill on Ware Road and in a groundwater sample near the site. The sampling detected slightly elevated levels PFAS. PFAS are a group of chemicals that do not break down easily and remain in the environment for decades, with some PFAS chemicals associated with health issues. The detection of elevated PFAS levels is new. These levels are slightly above state guidelines for these chemicals. The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) has more information about this location: https://www.michigan.gov/pfasresponse/investigations/sites-aoi/ionia-county/lowell-city-landfill.

At this time, EGLE does not believe there is a reason to restrict drinking water usage. The City takes the safety of drinking water very seriously and is working closely with the State to determine next steps. As part of this process and out of an abundance of caution, the City has begun testing residential drinking wells identified by EGLE for PFAS. We have reached out to residents so our environmental contractor, BLDI, can schedule sample collections. EGLE and MPART held a public presentation on Jan. 23 for residents to learn more and ask questions. To view the public presentation, click here

During the May 6 City Council meeting, BLDI provided an update on PFAS sampling in drinking water wells near the former landfill property and outlined next steps. You can view BLDI’s presentation here.

Background: The City owned and operated a municipal waste landfill at the site from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. In 1987, the State placed three monitoring wells on the site to determine if there were volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the groundwater. VOCs are humanmade chemicals that have a high vapor pressure and low water solubility and are used in a variety of applications, including in paints, pharmaceuticals and refrigerants. At that time, very low concentrations of tetrachloroethylene, dichloromethane and carbon tetrachloride were found in the groundwater. Each of these chemicals has many uses. Tetrachloroethylene is commonly used in dry cleaning, dichloromethane has been used in paint stripping, pharmaceutical manufacturing, paint remover manufacturing and metal cleaning and degreasing, and carbon tetrachloride has been used in the rubber, chemical, pharmaceutical and dry cleaning industries.

In 2019, EGLE and the City began developing a work plan to monitor groundwater near the site for other chemicals. As part of this work, nine additional monitoring wells were installed at the former landfill in October 2019. Sampling of the groundwater found very low concentrations of tetrachloroethylene that were only slightly above state criteria used for drinking water safety standards. This chemical has not been detected within the drinking water aquifer that is the source of drinking water for the area residential wells. The groundwater data collected to date has allowed the City to determine the direction in which groundwater flows. Consistent with previous work by EGLE, groundwater flow was verified to be away from any type of drinking, cooking or bathing use, mitigating potential homeowner exposure. 

You can find answers to frequently asked questions below. 

PFAS Resources

Michigan PFAS Action Response Team
  • Information on MPART sites and private well sampling
  • Environmental Assistance Center: 1.800.662.9278
Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy
  • Information on the environment and public health
  • EGLE site lead for Ware Road landfill: Daniel Ten Brink, tenbrinkd@michigan.gov or 616.581.1473
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
  • Information on possible health effects of PFAS
  • Phone: 1.800.648.6942
Ionia County Health Department
  • Responsible for residential wells affected by the Ware Road landfill
  • Phone: 616.527.5341
EPA
  • Information on PFAS as an emerging contaminant


FAQs

1. What are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS?

PFAS are a large group of humanmade chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s. These chemicals are resistant to heat, water and oil. PFAS have been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, as an emerging contaminant. For more information, visit EPA.gov.

2. Where are PFAS found?
For decades, PFAS have been used in many industrial applications and consumer products, such as carpeting, waterproof clothing, upholstery, food paper wrappings, personal care products, firefighting foams and metal plating. While some PFAS chemicals – such as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS – are no longer made in the U.S., many others are still used today. According to the EPA, certain PFAS chemicals have been found at low levels both in the environment and in blood samples of the general U.S. population.

3. What are the health risks associated with PFAS?
Only a small fraction of the thousands of different PFAS chemicals has been studied to determine potential human health and environmental risks. Of the chemicals that have been studied, scientific research shows they are persistent, meaning they do not break down in the environment and do build up over time in blood and organs of humans and animals. Studies in animals who were exposed to certain PFAS found links between the chemicals and increased cholesterol, changes in the body’s hormones and immune system, decreased fertility and increased risk of certain cancers. For more information, visit the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website.

4. How could I be exposed to PFAS?

 An individual’s exposure to PFAS can vary due to a number of factors. Most often, people are exposed to these chemicals through consumer products. Drinking water can be an additional source of exposure in communities where these chemicals have impacted water supplies. The primary way people are exposed to PFAS is by unknowingly swallowing these chemicals, which are used in cooking pans or food packaging. Once swallowed, PFAS can enter the bloodstream.

These chemicals do not easily absorb through the skin, so there is little to no risk from simply touching a product or water source that contains PFAS.

5. How does PFAS get into drinking water?

According to the EPA, PFAS can get into drinking water when products or wastes containing them are disposed, used or spilled onto the ground or into lakes and rivers. PFAS move easily through the ground, getting into groundwater that may be used for some water supplies or private drinking water wells. They also can get into drinking water when released into lakes or rivers used as sources of drinking water. PFAS released into the air can also end up in rivers and lakes used for drinking water. For more information, visit the MDHHS website.

6. What is the State doing about PFAS?

Through the Michigan PFAS Action Response team, or MPART, the State is working proactively to identify locations where PFAS may be present as a contaminant. The goals of MPART are to address the threat of PFAS contamination in Michigan, protect public health and ensure the safety of our State’s land, air and water while facilitating interagency coordination, increasing transparency and requiring clear standards to ensure accountability. Additionally, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, or EGLE, guidance requires municipal water be analyzed for many different PFAS chemicals, even chemicals for which no federal or state health or safety information is available. Depending on the approved analytical method used, approximately 18 to 25 different PFAS chemicals are analyzed in each drinking water sample. 

7. Where has PFAS been found in Lowell?
MPART and EGLE are working with the City of Lowell to address PFAS recently detected at the City’s former landfill on Ware Road. This includes reaching out to inform potentially affected residents, collecting samples from residential drinking water wells at properties near the site that have been identified by EGLE and testing samples for PFAS, as well as planning a future public presentation so residents can learn more and ask questions. The City is covering the cost of the sampling and testing at the properties identified by EGLE, which is expected to take place December 2023 through February 2024. The testing results for a well will be provided only to that individual homeowner. The results will then be shared with EGLE and the aggregate results without identifying information will be posted on the City’s website.

PFAS sampling was conducted at the former landfill site in summer 2023. Results of this testing are available on MPART’s website. The Lowell landfill site and one adjoining property are the only properties where PFAS has been detected in the groundwater. The property owner has been notified, and additional investigations are ongoing. Out of an abundance of caution, EGLE has requested the City obtain samples from drinking water wells at additional properties immediately surrounding the former landfill and test these samples for PFAS.

8. Why did no one reach out to those who live near the landfill to say there could be an issue?
The City follows EGLE regulations regarding notification to property owners of possible migration of contamination. If contamination is suspected to have reached a nearby property, notification is promptly sent to both the property owner and EGLE. Based on the data collected to date, the City has confirmed PFAS from the former Lowell landfill have migrated to only one property. The City properly notified that property owner and EGLE.

The data collected to date shows no PFAS contamination has migrated from the former landfill to any properties located to the north, west or south. However, out of an abundance of caution, EGLE has requested the City obtain and test samples from drinking water wells at adjacent properties for PFAS. These property owners are being notified by the City and BLDI, its environmental consultant, which will schedule testing.

ELGE provides environmental information online, and we encourage anyone interested in learning more about these issues to visit EGLE’s website.

9. I don’t use a well for my drinking water. Is there PFAS in Lowell’s municipal water system?

Lowell’s municipal water supply is tested regularly for PFAS and many other chemicals. The City’s municipal water supply meets or exceeds all state and federal standards for drinking water and is nondetect for PFAS. You can read the 2022 Water Quality Report on our website. 

10. My water has a funny taste. Is it PFAS?
No, PFAS chemicals do not have any taste or color. If your water is from a municipal or community water supply and has an unusual taste or color, contact your water supplier. If you have a private drinking water well and your water has an unusual taste or color, contact the Ionia County Health Department at 616.527.5341.

11. Why are my neighbors’ testing results different than mine?

Test results can vary depending on several factors, including the depth of the drinking water wells, groundwater flow direction and geological characteristics underground. PFAS contamination in groundwater can be found at different depths in the ground depending on the aquifer thickness, type and whether sand or clay is present.

Groundwater flows in certain directions and paths and, depending on your home’s and drinking water well’s location in relation to any PFAS contamination source, your testing results might show different levels of PFAS, including non-detect, than your neighbor’s well.

12. If I have a well and live near a location that has tested positive for PFAS, will my drinking water be contaminated?
Not necessarily, for the reasons outlined in answer No. 10 above.

13. What if I’m not in the testing area – can I still have my well tested?
You can certainly have your water tested any time. The State provides a list of approved agencies here. You will be responsible for paying any fees associated with testing if you are not in the area identified by EGLE.

14. If the PFAS levels in my water exceed Michigan standards, will the City pay for a water filter for my home?
Yes, if the PFAS came from the former Ware Road landfill.

15. How do you determine boundaries for testing?
EGLE looked at a number of factors, including results for monitoring well results, groundwater flow direction, gradient levels and other factors in establishing boundaries for the first phase of sampling. Generally, the farther a sampling point is from the source of contamination, the lower the concentration will be because the chemicals become diluted as they move through groundwater. If your home is upgradient of the former landfill, that means the groundwater is flowing away from you and should not pose a risk to your well. Similarly, if your home is located to the side of the direction of groundwater flow (side-gradient), there should be no risk to your well.

As of Jan. 23, all tests completed in the most recent sampling came back as non-detect for PFAS. If tests show PFAS levels that exceed Michigan standards, EGLE will expand the test area.

16. My home is just outside the boundary – will you test my home?
EGLE established the boundaries for the first phase of sampling. As of Jan. 23, all tests came back as non-detect for PFAS within the sampling area. If any tests show PFAS levels that exceed Michigan standards, EGLE will expand the test area to those properties along the path of groundwater flow until the outer boundary of the contaminant plume has been identified.

17. How many sampling letters were sent out?
Notices to approximately 45 homes were mailed. As of Jan. 30, BLDI has contacted and sampled the wells of all residents who have submitted an access agreement. BLDI is still waiting for access agreements from six homes and will reach out to those residents.

18. Residential wells draw water from different levels. Do the samples taken represent different levels?
EGLE reviewed well depths from publicly available data and used that information to identify wells to be tested. Based on those results, BLDI is sampling from wells with various screened intervals.

19. We understand the landfill was closed in 1983. Is the City still using it for disposal?
While the City has not used the landfill for disposal in a long time, the City has taken nonhazardous storm debris and animal carcasses there in the past. The placement of these items at the landfill are unlikely to pose an environmental threat.  

20. How often are these monitoring wells tested?
The monitoring wells installed on or in the immediate area of the former landfill to monitor applicable constituents are being tested on an as-needed basis per EGLE direction.

21. What are you doing to contain this situation? What remediation is going on?
The first step is to make sure everyone’s drinking water is safe. Once EGLE is satisfied that has been completed, the City will work with EGLE to complete the PFAS investigation. The goal of the investigation is to determine the location of the contaminants in groundwater, called the contaminant plume. Once the boundaries of the plume have been fully delineated, the City will work with EGLE to determine how best to remediate the groundwater, as applicable. 

22. Is the plume moving?
The City is continuing to investigate PFAS in groundwater. While the outer edges of the plume have not yet been defined, groundwater sampling conducted by the City has provided information to determine the direction of groundwater flow. Groundwater tends to flow in one direction, and the speed at which it flows can vary. This information is used to predict where the plume may be located in the future.

23. Why not just remove all the material in the dump?
Because of the size of these old landfills, it is not feasible to dig up the materials and haul them somewhere else. First, there is not enough available new landfill space to accommodate all of the material. Second, disturbing the material by excavating can cause more contaminants to enter the groundwater, resulting in greater contamination than exists now. Third, trucking the material from the site would require trucks traveling over nearby roads continuously for possibly months or years, creating potentially more dangerous conditions if there were an accident as well as tearing up the local roads. Finally, the costs associated with removal are huge and ultimately would be passed on to the taxpayers. During the Jan. 23 public presentation, EGLE estimated removal costs could top $400 million while the City’s entire budget is $4.2 million, making it economically unfeasible. For all of these reasons, waste materials in old landfills across the country are typically safely managed in place.

24. How long does testing take?
Once samples are collected, the City receives the testing results in approximately one to two weeks, depending on laboratory turnaround. The results are reported to the state of Michigan and then shared with residents of the sampled homes, who will receive a letter.

25. Why are my results taking so long?
There’s a nationwide shortage in the sampling chemical used in test kits. BLDI has had a difficult time ordering the test kits, although they do expect some to arrive in late January/early February.

26. What’s the deepest test well?
The deepest on-site monitoring well has its screen set from 102 feet to 107 feet below ground surface.

27. We can ingest PFAS by drinking water or eating fish with high concentrations. What about gardens – do I need to worry about my vegetables?
The state of Michigan is still researching this area and says it depends on a number of factors, such as the particular crop, the soil and how much organic matter is used. PFAS can be taken up by certain plants, but there isn’t a lot of data to determine how much may be in the plant. Current best practices indicate if your well does have an exceedance of PFAS, you should not use your well to water your garden. If you have used your well to water your garden and your well has been determined to contain PFAS, it is possible PFAS may be present in your soils. In that case, you should not use your soil for a garden. Instead, it is recommended you use raised bed planters with purchased soil and water your garden plants with bottled water to supplement the rain.

28. Some of us don’t pay taxes in Lowell. Who’s the City accountable to when it comes to PFAS?
Lowell must follow Michigan laws that regulate PFAS contamination, and EGLE is in charge of enforcing those laws. We are committed to following our obligations under the law.

29. How do neighbors stay informed?
We update our website when new information becomes available. You can sign up for monthly emails by sending your address to mburns@ci.lowell.mi.us to receive an update on the first Thursday of each month. You can also visit MPART for updates.

Reports – Please note: 1 ug/L = 1,000 Parts Per Trillion (PPT)
2023 Groundwater Sample Testing Results
Previous Reports