DNR: Michigan 1st in nation to use drones to search for PFAS

LANSING — In what is thought to be the first-ever use of drones to search for possible locations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) contamination, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said it would deploy a drone this week over Crawford County’s Lake Margrethe to locate springs that could be carrying PFAS contamination from past firefighting activities at the nearby Camp Grayling military base.

The DEQ will fly a DJI 210 drone fitted with both Forward Looking Infrared and regular cameras just offshore and at an altitude of 50 to 100 feet above the lake. If cold springs entering the warmer lake are present, they will be visible with the FLIR camera. The entry of cold springs does not confirm the presence of PFAS contamination, DEQ officials said, but discovering the flow of groundwater from the base into surface waters will allow the DEQ to better target sampling efforts. Identifying the flow of groundwater into a surface water body may also assist in effective placement of treatment, if needed.

Following the creation of standards and procedures to protect public safety and address privacy concerns, the DEQ has recently expanded the use of drone technologies to assist in environmental investigations throughout the state. Although using drones for thermal imaging is not new, this is believed to be the first time the technology has been used as part of a PFAS investigation.

“To the best of our knowledge, this the first time anyone has ever used a FLIR-equipped drone in the hunt for potential PFAS contamination,” said Carol Isaacs director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART). “Like our first-in-the-nation testing of public water systems, this innovative use of technology is another example of MPART’s proactive approach to this emerging contaminant.”

PFAS compounds are a group of potentially harmful contaminants used in thousands of applications globally, including firefighting foam, food packaging, and many other consumer products. These compounds also are used by industries such as tanneries, metal platers, and clothing manufacturers. The discovery of PFAS contamination is a nationally growing trend across the United States.

In January 2018, the DEQ acted to set a new clean-up standard for PFAS in groundwater used for drinking water of 70 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) combined. Michigan is one of only a handful of states to establish a clean-up standard.

MPART is overseeing the state’s $23 million effort to locate PFAS contamination, identify sources, and oversee remediation activities aimed at protecting the state’s water resources and mitigating risks to the public. For more information, visit Michigan.gov/PFASresponse.

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