Cleaning PFAS-tainted water: ‘Easy to get to zero’

Water for West Virginia town cleaned after contamination like that in West Michigan

Parkersburg, West Virginia, Ohio River
The Ohio River near Parkersburg, West Virginia. (Dec. 6, 2017)


PARKERSBURG, W. Va. (WOOD) — Plainfield Township residents worried about trace levels of a likely carcinogen in their municipal water might want to look south, to the Ohio River Valley.

In Parkersburg, West Virginia, where DuPont contaminated municipal water years ago, the tap now runs clean.

“I’d say right now we probably have the cleanest water going because of the filtration system, because it’s double-whammied,” said Joe Kiger, who sued DuPont over water contamination in 2001. “It’s double-filtered.”

The chemical known as PFOA that DuPont used to make Teflon made a mess of the water.

“It can kill you,” said Dr. Paul Brooks, who oversaw blood testing of 69,000 people in Parkersburg for a study of PFOA. “It may be a slow death.”

The chemical spread into six public water districts downriver, serving more than 70,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio. It led to lawsuits in 2001, then a settlement that included fixing the water. DuPont spent millions installing double-carbon filters for the public water systems and is required to maintain them.

The result: No more bad drinking water.

DuPont also has agreed to a $670 million settlement for 3,500 people who suffered ailments linked to the chemical — most with high cholesterol and thyroid problems, but some with ulcerative colitis, testicular and kidney cancer and hypertension during pregnancy.

“I think if you get the scientists together who really know their stuff, they’ll say the only safe level in a human being is none. Zero,” Brooks said.

Brooks said the only way to do that is to clean the source.

“We know that a little bit is just as dangerous as a whole lot,” Brooks said.

That’s because PFAS takes so long to leave the human body that it accumulates, he said.

In Kent County, Rockford-based shoe manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide started providing safe water for residents with private wells long before lawsuits were filed. The concern about contamination started around Wolverine’s old House Street dump, where the company dumped sludge containing PFAS until 1970. This year, tests started showing PFAS in neighboring wells, some at high levels.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the toxic tap water investigation

“If Wolverine is filtering the water without anybody forcing them to do that, that’s a very good thing,” said West Virginia attorney Harry Deitzler, who sued DuPont. “I would commend them for that, and that’s the right thing to do. That didn’t happen here without a lawsuit.”

But residents on municipal water in Plainfield Township worry about their water, too. Last year, Plainfield’s municipal water hit 10 parts per trillion, well under the federal advisory limit of 70. But residents want zero.

“It’s so important that they have clean water because the diseases might not manifest themselves for the next 10 years, 20 or 30 years, and by then, it’s too late,” said Deitzler, the attorney. “So the most important thing right now is to get the water clean.

“It’s easy to get it down to zero,” he continued. “Why would you do anything less?

“The cleaning up of the water can be virtually fixed overnight,” Deitzler said. “The challenge of addressing the disease and figuring out, am I going to be a person getting the disease, getting the testing? That’s a process that lasts decades.”

Earl Botkin, who lives downriver from DuPont, is now drinking clean water, but it’s too late. Ulcerative colitis led doctors to remove his colon. He’s waiting for his share of the $670 million DuPont settlement.

But the great-grandfather wonders how many more Christmases he has left with his family.

“You’re always in doubt,” Botkin said. “This could possibly be the last, between my heart and the other problems I have, but I can’t dwell on that. That’d drive me nuts. you can’t dwell on that.”

Plainfield Township Superintendent Cameron Van Wyngarden said that even though the municipal water is below the Environmental Protection Agency advisory limits, the township is looking at options.

“We are listening to the concerns of residents and talking with national leaders in municipal water treatment and evaluating potential options that would remove the minor trace of PFAS currently in our system, which is far below EPA guidelines,” he wrote in a statement. “It’s important to note that our drinking water meets or exceeds all state and federal standards for clean, safe drinking water.”

RESOURCES FOR BELMONT RESIDENTS:

If you are eligible for a whole-house water filtration system from Wolverine Worldwide, you can call 616.866.5627 or email HouseStreet@wwwinc.com.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Environmental Assistance Center can be reached at 1.800.662.9278.

Websites with additional information on the contamination: