A blind eye to health risks associated with Forever Chemicals?
A recent Chicago Tribune investigation reported that greater Chicago’s water and sewage agency has shipped sewage sludge that contained the Forever Chemical PFAS to area farms to be spread on fields.
The practice went on for a decade and the Tribune report said it was widely encouraged including by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
PFAS is a known, significant risk to human health. The sludge was marketed as biosolids by the agency, officially the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD).
On its website MWRD describes its biosolids program as “exemplary” and said it goes through “an extensive testing regimen to ensure each batch is of the highest quality.”
MWRD is a state agency and its commissioners who oversee its work are elected officials.
The Tribune report was authored by Michael Hawthorne, one of the country's top investigative environmental journalists and can be read here.
The practice described in the report is troubling enough on its face, especially in 2022 when we are supposedly in a more enlightened and transparent era.
But equally concerning is MWRD”s official response to the Tribune report as posted on its website.
MWRD released a lawerly statement saying its biosolids program follows all the applicable rules and regulations. Ok, a predictable response and it may be technically true.
But what followed in MWRD’s response is cause for concern.
“With regards to human health concerns, the U.S. EPA is currently doing a risk assessment on PFAS substances. The risk assessment is expected to be completed by 2024,” MWRD said in the release.
It’s as if MWRD knew nothing about PFAS’ health risks, in spite of the fact it has received widespread coverage for years. Plus, it’s the agency’s job to know.
The statement made no mention that the EPA website says “exposure to PFAS may be harmful to human health” and lists cancer, diminished capacity of the immune system and developmental delays in children among a list of the risks associated with PFAS exposure.
It is hard to believe that a state agency with publicly elected board members could be so blind to a human health issue like Forever Chemicals.
I contacted Cameron Davis, a commissioner on the MWRD Board of Directors. Disclosure, I’ve known Davis for approaching 20 years.
He has been a prominent environmental advocate and executive working on Great Lakes issues including as a senior adviser to the EPA Administrator during the Obama administration.
The Tribune article said Davis had been pressing MWRD staff to take on the PFAS issue.
In an email, I asked Davis if he was onboard with MWRD’s press release on the Tribune article. Specifically, the section of the response where MWRD failed to address the well-known health risks from PFAS exposure.
Davis didn’t comment on the specific health concern question, said he is still working on the issue and referred me to his quotes in the Tribune article as his response.
In the Tribune article Davis pivoted away from any responsibility MWRD may have and said, “Public utilities across the country didn’t create this problem, but they’re forced to deal with it in ways that put the screws to all of us.”
Davis said protecting public health comes first and manufacturers need to be held accountable.
It’s worth mentioning that the EPA’s current top executive in the Great Lakes region, Debra Shore, was a commissioner on the MWRD board from 2006 until 2021. While there, Shore was known to be an advocate for the agency to take more progressive stances on environmental issues.
MWRD’s response to PFAS in biosolids reminds me of the EPA’s early reaction to the Flint water crisis where the agency dawdled, deflected and blamed others while Flint citizens suffered.
In that case, the Great Lakes region administrator who had oversight of Flint’s lead in drinking water issues eventually resigned under pressure.
A follow up investigation by EPA’s Inspector General said “management weaknesses” prolonged the Flint crisis. And six years later there is still a pending federal lawsuit against EPA that was brought by Flint citizens.
The current MWRD board makeup is a diverse mix of relatively young and veteran commissioners. They have a high public profile frequently appearing at community and educational events that are designed to engage the public.
Let’s hope in the confines of the boardroom they have the rigor to make the hard decisions concerning PFAS in biosolids and other human health issues.
MWRD’s full statement on the Chicago Tribune article is here.
Chicago-based environmental journalist