Sandy Wynn-Stelt bought her dream home in a picturesque Michigan town. She was shocked to learn of a deadly water contaminant she’d never heard of: PFAS.
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Sandy Wynn-Stelt and her husband, Joel Stelt, bought their home in Belmont in 1992, shortly after they were married.
“It was the perfect location,” Wynn-Stelt told The ‘Gander.
About ten minutes northeast of Grand Rapids, the rural community has been a winter and wedding destination for decades, sending snow bunnies and brides-to-be to the Cannonsburg Ski Area since the mid-1960s.
“We loved [the house],” Wynn-Stelt said “It was across the street from a 90-acre Christmas tree farm.”
Nearby at the Wurtsmith Airforce Base in Oscoda, Ohio native John Asbury says he enjoyed homemade iced tea almost daily while stationed at the base for 12 years.
“When I left [the base] there were only three people left besides me,” he told The ‘Gander about its 1993 closure.
It was 1996 when a tumor was discovered in the back of his brain. He’s now had two brain surgeries since retiring from the base.
In 2016, almost 15 years after moving into their dream home, Stelt became unexpectedly ill. He and his wife received his liver cancer diagnosis on March 1, 2016. He died that same month.
Not long after Stelt died, deadly contaminants were found to be in the region’s drinking water—contaminants the Stelt family never knew infiltrated Michigan water systems like the one in their community.
These chemicals cannot be broken down by the human body and can lead to serious health complications.
But how did they end up in small town communities now found all across the state?
Learning the Truth
Wynn-Stelt learned more about the “forever chemicals” as she and neighbors researched the topic on their own.
State officials who came to test her neighborhood got record-level results, prompting them to return for more tests. Each time, the levels of PFAS present in her water was astronomical, she said.
“It turned out that the Christmas tree farm was actually a hundred acres of toxic waste that had been dumped by Wolverine Worldwide and the Scotchguard they used for their shoes had seeped into our groundwater,” she said. “And because we’re on a well, we’d been drinking it right from the tap.”
Wynn-Stelt said one of the half-dozen officials who gathered in her home to deliver the news about her community’s water said her well had higher levels of PFAS than Oscoda, and potentially had the highest levels discovered in the country at the time.
“I retired and came back home [to Ohio], I had a good job, I’d just gotten remarried,” he said.
“I came home one day for work, bounced off the wall, and woke up in the hospital. That’s all I remember.”
Wynn-Stelt and Asbury’s experiences are, unfortunately, not unique.
Impure Michigan Water
Sung Kyun Park is an associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan whose research has led to important information about the chemicals.
“The main reason why PFAS are dangerous is that these chemicals are very persistent and hard to remove from the environment once released,” he told The ‘Gander. “This is why PFAS are also called ‘forever chemicals.’”
He said a recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group shows that up to 110 million Americans could have PFAS in their water. This means one-third of Americans may be exposed to PFAS every day through drinking water.
Since the discovery of PFAS chemicals in high concentrations throughout the state, county water officials have begun examining the levels in their groundwater to ensure residents aren’t unknowingly ingesting the dangerous substances.
Oakland County Water Commissioner Jim Nash holds weekly water briefings with residents via Facebook live.
“We tested all the systems that we operate and maintain and we found none in any of ours,” he told The ‘Gander, but said smaller well water systems did test positive. They were outfitted with filters or replaced.
Nash said he remains diligent to avoid the major complications other Michiganders are having as a result of the chemicals.
Michigan has identified 10 military sites in need of PFAS cleanup, with the Wolverine Worldwide Tanning (Rockford Tannery) occupying the list’s second slot. Other polluters include Lapeer Plating & Plastics, the Roosevelt Refinery in Mt. Pleasant, and the Alpena Combat Readiness Center. 3M, the manufacturer of Scotchgard, recently settled a lawsuit filed against them by a Michigan family because of contaminated drinking water.
Military bases have been large contributors to PFAS contaminants, largely because of repetitive drills that used chemicals that seeped into the earth beneath the bases.
“The Department of Defense is evaluating [cleanup standards], and we take our lead from what the Department of Defense says,” Stephen TerMaath, who leads the Air Force division in charge of Wurtsmith cleanup, told Bridge Michigan.
A Presidential Plan for Clean Water
One of the barriers to addressing PFAS problems in drinking water is lack of a national plan or federal assistance. Without it, states are left to assess and repair damage on their own. For their part, Michigan lawmakers have passed the most strict PFAS standards in the country, requiring fewer contaminants than the EPA.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has presented plans to address environmental issues throughout the country and in his full proposal says he wants to “tackle water pollution in a science-based manner.”
PFAS chemicals are not currently classified as hazardous, but Biden says his administration would change that by requiring them to be properly identified and sparingly used. He also plans to address water affordability for rural and low-income communities across the country.
Biden vows to make data- and science-driven decisions, rather than politically motivated ones.
In contrast, President Trump’s reelection campaign website makes no mention of PFAS or water contamination over the next four years if he’s reelected. It also does not mention the environmental rollbacks his administration is responsible for that have led to current environmental problems in the US.
The Biden plan for the environment calls for accountability from major polluters and clean energy overall by 2050.
Fighting for a Cleaner Future
Wynn-Stelt is seeking accountability from Michigan polluters, too.
She’s been in litigation against 3M and Wolverine Worldwide for three years but often feels like “there’s no end in sight.”
She’s also testified before state and federal legislators, asking that these harmful chemicals be removed from manufacturing production for the sake of future generations. And she plans to take her issue to the ballot in November.
“Joel and I always voted,” she said. “Where people stand on the environment has become more important to me, but politicians who listen to their communities and respond instead of listening to big business matters more these days.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify the deadly contaminants were found in the region’s drinking water after Stelt died. We regret the error. The original headline to this story was updated.