After decades of clean up, an invisible threat looms in the Detroit River.
The morning light is dim, and the water is calm as Robert Burns steps through the chilled air into the small motorboat he uses to circumnavigate the boundary waters between Detroit, MI and Windsor, Ontario. Burns works as the Detroit River’s Waterkeeper where he vigilantly guards and advocates for the health and safety of the Detroit River as well as the people, plants, and animals that call it home.
Throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, it wasn’t uncommon to see billowing black smoke and dark colored discharges from pipes along the industry-lined rivers that snake throughout the Great Lakes Region. Today the Detroit River, the water source for over 4 million Americans and Canadians, may be clean, clear, and free of oil slicks, but the work of restoring its habitats is far from done.
“Every time you turn around there's something new that's popping up,” Burns says, recalling his 4 decades working on the river. So this summer, when a group of environmental research students, led by Dr. Tracie Baker of Wayne State University, joined Bob in his small fishing boat to gather data about a family of fire suppressant chemicals, Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or PFAS for short, he wasn’t surprised.
The invisible compound, linked to cancer and immune system damage, is used in everything from microwave popcorn bags to waterproof work boots. It’s also, importantly, found in the firefighting foam regularly sprayed at airports and military installations that dot the river. Runoff from storms drags this “forever chemical,” more potent than mercury, from the runways into the river and, potentially, into the city’s drinking supply. Testing in Detroit has just begun, but with PFAS levels growing across the country, it's likely this problem has existed invisibly for decades.
“I grew up on the river,” Burns says from his home on Grosse Ile, “so I got to see firsthand just how nasty things could be around some of these industries.” A child in the 1960s, Burns used to play along Detroit's beaches and shorelines, being sure to avoid FOG - fats, oils, and greases - a discharge from the nearby waste treatment plant that would accumulate in globs on the sand and as film on the water. By the 1980s, industry had all but gone from the city, but the dark, oily riverbeds and toxic water they created stayed behind.
Today, memories of the river’s past are hard to shake. As we speak, Burns watches the cleanup of the former McLouth Steel site happening outside his front window. Closed in 1996, today the former site of one of Detroit’s largest steel mills is a contributor to a list of Beneficial Use Impairments (BUI’s) on the river “as a result of human activities at the local level.” A dozen or so properties just like McLouth line the Detroit River’s banks and are one of the factors that lead to the area being classified as an “area of concern” (AOC) by the EPA. The AOC designation brings dollars from the EPA, as well as EGLE, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, to fund the clean-up of projects on former steel sites as well as to monitor for chemicals like PFAS.
Burns, and the 300-member strong Waterkeeper's Alliance, focus their energy on wins like this that can bring a marked change to their communities. The Alliance, a “global network of grassroots leaders,” that stretches from the San Francisco Bay to Lagos, Nigeria, Bogota to New Delhi, are working to protect “everyone’s right to clean water.” And reigning in PFAS pollution around the globe is at the top of their list to stop an “emerging drinking water disaster.”
Over at the Baker Water Lab on Wayne State’s downtown campus, Dr. Baker and her students are still processing the surface water and sediment samples they gathered from the river this summer. Their analysis isn’t complete, but preliminary numbers indicate levels of PFAS and PFOS, just two of the 32 known chemicals in the PFAS family, at levels far above the 7 parts per million advised by the EPA. They’ve registered high numbers for the rest of the PFAS family as well, but the EPA currently has no advisories or regulations for the other 30 known chemicals.
It’s a problem Dr. Baker says she’s seen before with other compounds known to be harmful, like BPA. After that material, common in plastic water bottles, was banned, many manufacturers would claim their product as “BPA Free.” But in fact, “they were using BPF, and BPS,” says Baker, “which are very similar, but [aren’t] BPA.” It’s a game of regulatory whack-a-mole common throughout the U.S. that favors ease for industry over health and safety for people and the river.
Although the EPA released new health advisories for PFAS and PFOS in May, they are non-binding and non-enforceable, meaning there’s still no formal limits on how much of the substance can enter our waterways or how much is safe for consumption. The lack of federal guidance has led states like Michigan to set their own standards.
MPART, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, established as an “enduring” agency by executive order from newly elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer in March 2019, recently released strict guidelines to monitor and regulate 7 PFAS substances. This comes alongside the $500m MI Clean Water fund which will provide grants for municipalities throughout the state to replace lead water lines, like the ones still found in Flint, and improve water treatment facilities to handle chemicals like PFAS. It’s a solid step forward to monitor the chemicals we know are harmful, but still leaves people waiting to find out if other pollutants lurk in their drinking water long after they’ve consumed it.
To educate people about the dangers of consuming certain fish species fish contaminated with various chemicals or heavy metals in their tissue, Burns and the Friends of the Detroit River (FDR), a grassroots organization dedicated to the preservation of the river, have been working with the EF (MDPH). “I spend a lot of time going up and down the river,” Burns says, “and there are a lot of people who I see fishing in the same spots.” A group of “Riverwalkers” working with MDPH pass out brochures to fishermen in those spots, hoping to provide them with knowledge about what they are consuming. Although there isn't a formal consumption advisory for the Detroit river related to PFAS, MDPH is still concerned about the frequent consumption of some fish species which could contain undetected levels of PFAS.
But informing the public can only do so much. Burns, Baker, and the rest of the community working to protect the river would rather keep the chemicals from entering the waterways in the first place. The sources of PFAS pollution are not a mystery. Stricter enforcement from the EPA to compel chemical companies, airports, and military installations to test chemicals before exposing people to them, like the FDA compels the pharmaceutical industry to do with new drugs, for instance, could help end this constant game of “catch up” by regulators and conservationists like Burns.
In the meantime, though the Detroit riverfront is no longer spotted with blobs of greasy discharge or black, murky waves, much work protecting the river is still to be done. But Burns remains hopeful. “There aren’t many people who don’t understand the value that everyone deserves to have clean water, and clean air,” he says as the sun sets and the river steadily flows past, “Irrespective of what your views are, I think we can all agree on that.”