Years after the Flint water crisis drew national attention, another water pollution issue has emerged in House races in Michigan.
Residents are growing concerned about human exposure to so-called forever chemicals, known as perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The chemicals, linked to health problems such as hypertension in pregnant women and a higher risk of developing certain cancers, have been found in groundwater and drinking water systems across the state.
Along with other water-centric issues springing up through the summer, including an outbreak of lead contamination in Detroit public school drinking water systems, the current of bad news about Michiganders’ water has made the issue a “powder keg” in the election, said Bob Allison, deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
In July, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Kalamazoo County after drinking water in the town of Parchment tested at over 20 times the EPA’s health advisory limit for two forms of PFAS — PFOS and PFOA — which were phased out of production in 2000 amid concerns over their risks to human health.
The state so far had found at least 38 sites, including public drinking water utilities, rivers and streams, with high concentrations of PFAS, according to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, a multiagency program started in November 2017 to address the problem.
While officials are telling residents water that tests below the EPA threshold is safe to drink, a draft Health and Human Services Department toxicology profile released in June assessing certain forms of PFAS found EPA’s threshold may be between seven and 10 times too high.
“PFAS, like the Flint water crisis — they’re both examples that make it clear elections matter,” said Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, whose district includes Flint and whose midterm race is rated Solid Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. “Public policy is not some abstraction and it could really have an effect on people who don’t think about politics all the time.”
While Flint’s problem occurred in a historically Democratic district, PFAS have emerged as a problem in suburban and rural communities that traditionally vote Republican. Of 38 sites the state deemed contaminated by the chemicals, 23 are in GOP-held districts.
Local water activist Cody Angell started the clean water activist group Michigan Demands Action after high levels of PFAS contamination were found in the drinking water samples in his town of Plainfield Township coming from a nearby tannery. His group has grown to over 6,000 members.
Angell, who lives in Republican Rep. Justin Amash’s district, said he has been contacted by nearly every candidate running in the region and “their main platform right now is water,” he said. Amash’s re-election race is rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections.
Two midterm contests in nearby GOP-held districts are rated Toss-ups by Inside Elections: the 11th District, where Democrat Haley Stevens and Republican Lena Epstein are vying to replace Republican Dave Trott, who’s not running for re-election, and the 8th District, where Democrat Elissa Slotkin is challenging incumbent Republican Mike Bishop.
“This is a massive talking point because this has been in the news so much,” Angell said. “People are demanding access to clean water.”
Democratic turnout in the state’s primary election, held less than two weeks after Kalamazoo County’s contamination was first announced, may be evidence of how PFAS is animating voters, especially in districts with contamination sites, he said.
In Kalamazoo County, overall turnout in the primary jumped to roughly 56,000 from roughly 27,000 in 2016. The district saw Democratic turnout nearly tripling the levels seen in its primaries since it was redrawn in 2010. Other GOP-held congressional districts with contamination sites found in the last year saw similar jumps, including Amash’s.
“When you have folks in Detroit and Flint struggling to have access to clean drinking water, and you have folks in Plainfield Township and [others] grappling with the same issue, it doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican,” said the League of Conservation Voters’ Allison. “What only matters is if you can trust the water that’s in your glass.”
Issue for Upton
Few Republicans in Congress have been so quick to respond to news of PFAS contamination in their district as 16th-term Rep. Fred Upton, whose district includes Parchment.
Upton requested to join the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment to attend the first congressional hearing on PFAS contamination Sept. 6. Although a former chairman of the full committee, Upton is not a member of that subcommittee.
Near the end of the hearing, he announced he was working with other Michiganders on the subcommittee, Republican Tim Walberg and Democrat Debbie Dingell, to propose legislation to increase federal involvement in cleaning up PFAS.
That same week a poll from the Democratic-aligned Public Policy Polling firm found 74 percent of likely voters knew “some” or “a lot” about the contamination in Parchment, and 43 percent said they “do not think Congressman Upton is doing enough” to address the situation.
Upton introduced a bill shortly afterward to force the EPA to determine within a year whether PFAS should be considered “hazardous substances,” in what may be the boldest proposal from a congressional Republican so far.
He said he hoped to get the bill to the president by the end of this year. However, the House has already begun its fall recess, and the earliest the bill may be considered will be after Michigan voters go to the polls.
Upton’s opponent, Democrat Matt Longjohn, criticized the bill for focusing only on PFAS contamination resulting from federal sites such as military bases, characterizing the Republican as avoiding “a burden placed on businesses [so] that they would regulated and held accountable for their actions.”
“But he does recognize that that would be something we should pay for as taxpayers if it was the federal government who was involved in contaminated property,” Longjohn said. “It’s a different standard that he’s holding out there for corporations than for the public.”
Upton replied with a statement calling Longjohn a “Johnny-come-lately who has been sitting on the sidelines and is now taking potshots” and emphasizing that he is the one pushing for the bill to be “considered ASAP.”
“Those trying to spin this for their own political fortune are just making noise,” Upton said.
Two weeks ago, Upton’s 6th District seat was added to the Democrats’ map of targets to flip, shortly after Roll Call reported that internal polling by Longjohn found him 5 percentage points behind Upton head-to-head. The separate PPP poll found him within 4 points. Inside Elections rates the race “Likely Republican.”
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