LANSING, MI — Fire departments would have 48 hours to tell state regulators about the use of a chemical-based firefighting foam type that’s caused drinking water contamination around Michigan under legislation signed into law.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed House Bills 4389 and 4390 on Wednesday, July 8. The bills regulate the use and reporting of aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, made with “forever chemicals known as PFAS.
Firefighters would also get more training for handling PFAS-based foams under the bills, which were sponsored by Reps. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine and Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond.
The bills, introduced last March, are the first substantial state legislation to address PFAS contamination in Michigan beyond funding for emergency response and cleanup.
By signing the bills, “we ensure any time a fire department uses firefighting foam that contains PFAS, the state is notified and the foam can be disposed of, so these forever chemicals don’t seep into our drinking water and needlessly harm Michiganders,” Whitmer said.
Yaroch, a former firefighter from Macomb County, said the health risks of PFAS exposure weren’t previously well understood within the fire service.
The chemicals are considered harmful at the low parts-per-trillion (ppt) level in the bodies of people exposed and can increase the risk of kidney and testicular cancer, suppress the body’s immune system response and cause pregnancy complications and low birth weight.
“The training in the past was more on the mechanism for delivering the foam and not as much on the health risks,” Yaroch said. “When I was in the fire department, PFAS was not known to have all these health risks.”
Bill 4389 requires municipal or airport fire chiefs to file a written report about a foam-use incident to the Michigan pollution emergency alert system within 48 hours. It also formalizes a state program started last year to collect Class B AFFF foam, which has resulted in more than 30,000 gallons being shipped to a hazardous waste landfill for disposal.
Bill 4390 amends the Firefighters Training Council Act to prohibit most PFAS-based foam in training and require that firefighters become certified before using the foam.
A third bill, 4391, was not signed Wednesday because an amendment added during Senate passage wasn’t approved by the House before summer session ended last month.
That bill would amend the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act and require the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) to promulgate state rules regarding a firefighter’s use of foam concentrate.
Yaroch is hopeful the House will adopt the amendment and send the bill on to Whitmer.
“I don’t think there are major changes that would cause a legislator to change their mind from what they voted the first time,” he said.
Michigan environmental groups have urged Whitmer to sign the foam bills, but did not issue typical laudatory statements in response to her doing on Wednesday.
The new laws do not address PFAS pollution caused by industrial or commercial sources, which account for a majority of the contamination sites in Michigan.
Nonetheless, foam used for training and emergency response has resulted in many examples of ground and surface water pollution in Michigan and elsewhere; particularly at military bases and airports where federal rules have required AFFF use.
The resulting chemical contamination has poisoned drinking water supplies and caused fish consumption advisories. Research has found elevated fluorochemical levels in the blood of firefighters who have used foams or personal protection gear coated in PFAS chemicals.
Much foam-based contamination is from legacy releases, but recent incident have caused problems. A 2016 tanker truck fire response near Niles resulted in a groundwater plume. In 2014, a Battle Creek firefighter accidentally released more than 1,500 gallons of foam and water mixture at the Michigan National Guard base at W.K. Kellogg Airport.
Some fire departments have switched to fluorine-free foams. The Ann Arbor fire department switched last year and said the new foam works well, but more must be used.
At the national level, a defense bill passed in December requires the military to phase out PFAS-laden foam use starting in 2024 and stop most training with it.
The chemicals can travel long distances once they enter the groundwater. PFAS are nicknamed “forever chemicals” for their ability to resist degradation over time. In addition to foam, the chemicals are used globally in thousands of ways to make products resistant to grease, moisture and heat.
Michigan is also in the final stages of establishing enforceable standards for PFAS chemicals in public drinking water supplies. New limits are awaiting review by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Legislative Rules, which received drafts in February from an oversight board. The committee has 15 quorum session days to act, a time window that’s expected to end this month.
The standards would also establish lower toxic site cleanup standards for two individual PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, that would apply to locations where foam use has contaminated groundwater supplies. There are now 94 sites around Michigan where one of those compounds exceeds the current state standard of 70-ppt in groundwater.