Michigan, Plainfield Township hire PR firms to deal with water contamination

Water Worries; State and Township hire Public Relations firms to answer water questions

PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, MICH. - Overwhelmed with questions and frustrations surrounding industrial contamination of residential drinking water, state and local officials hired public relations firms to assist in communication. 

"We recognized that it needed to communicate more effectively and more frequently with residents," said Cameron Van Wyngarden, superintendent of Plainfield Township. 

Plainfield Township hired Sabo PR in October to assist officials with the website and weekly e-newsletters that answer public questions about water contamination posed during board meetings, at which many residents claim they do not receive transparency. Plainfield Township has worked on and off with Sabo since 2015. 

"I find value in getting this information out to residents, and I hope that residents find value in receiving this information on a weekly basis," Van Wyngarden said.  

The information provided in the newsletters and the website is valuable, but taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for it, said Cody Angell, a citizen activist who created the Demand Action From Plainfield Township Facebook group. 

Plainfield Township pays Sabo $5,000-$10,000 per month to assist in communication. The money comes from taxpayers, in part from the municipal water bills. 

The township tells residents the water is safe, and hiring a PR firm makes it seem like that's not the case, Angell said. 

"We've been told from day one that our water is safe, yet we're spending tens of thousands of dollars a month for a PR firm," he said. "If our water is safe, then why are we hiring a PR firm?"

Plainfield municipal water tested just below the U.S. EPA's 70 parts per trillion (ppt) lifetime drinking water advisory for PFAS chemicals in 2013. The suspected carcinogen, linked to tannery sludge dumped decades ago by Wolverine Worldwide at different sites across Kent County, showed up in township wells last December below 10 ppt. 

Plainfield Township municipal wells also detected three contaminants, 1,4-Dioxane, hexavalent chromium and PFOS, at unsafe levels in 2015, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group. That, Angell says, is all too ironic. 

The state of Michigan also hired the Lansing-based firm Truscott Rossman to facilitate communications for Governor Rick Snyder's Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), which he created on Nov. 13, 2017. 

"We were brought on to supplement what the state is doing," said John Truscott, president and principal at Truscott Rossman. "The Governor is leading this effort in a very proactive way and wants to ensure the public is informed and understands the issue.  This is a very specific focus, and we’re helping the internal team to make sure we’re responsive as a state."

Truscott Rossman was hired in November on a six-month contract that will not exceed $50,000. The firm reduced its hourly rate of $325 to $175 for the state. In July 2017, the city of Grand Rapids hired Truscott Rossman on a one-year, $60,000 contract to improve its communication strategy. 

Plainfield Township doesn't have a timetable for when it won't need Sabo, Van Wyngarden said. 

"We don't know how long we would need to do weekly e-newsletters," he said. "At this point we're going to keep doing so, and I don't see an end at this point." 

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