State at odds with feds over Wurtsmith chemical contamination

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
In a photo form June 1, 2016, part of the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base grounds in Oscoda Township, Mich., are seen. The base closed in 1993, but dozens of township residents were advised not to drink their well water by state and local health officials due to high levels of PFAS contamination.

State officials and the Department of Defense remain deadlocked over whether the Air Force should accept more responsibility for cleaning up and paying for the chemical contamination in Oscoda after nearly a year in dispute resolution.

The ongoing disagreement between the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and federal officials was highlighted during last Friday's round table discussion with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Kalamazoo, where the Department of Defense was notably absent.

The head of Snyder’s PFAS task force, Carol Isaacs, said there was “discord” with the department. A July letter from Gov. Rick Snyder to Secretary of Defense James Mattis echoed the sentiment.

“…the DOD refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for the significant off-site contamination,” Snyder wrote. “This, in turn results in needless cost for the State of Michigan to address the source for contamination and an unwarranted delay in remediation efforts.”

The dispute is over “the scope and extent” of the PFAS contamination that can be attributed to Air Force activities at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, where personnel used PFAS-containing firefighting foam for training, said Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder.

A new statewide commission created by Gov. Rick Snyder is crafting a decades-long plan to revamp transportation, drinking water and other infrastructure concerns in Michigan.

The DEQ is finishing testing of groundwater plumes and additional samples to provide the information needed to link the contaminated groundwater to the air force base, Adler said. 

The toxic class of chemicals is linked to some health effects, including cancer and immune system problems. The chemical was widely used in Teflon, Scotchgard and firefighting foam and has been found at high levels at more than 30 sites throughout Michigan.

Michigan has five former or active military sites affected by PFAS contamination: the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, the former Escanaba Defense Fuel Support Points, Camp Grayling, the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base near Marquette, and the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Adler noted that though commitments for full remediation at Wurtsmith are slow in coming, Army bases around Michigan where contamination has been identified have been more cooperative.

“The Air Force refuses to treat” areas where PFAS-containing foam migrated offsite, creating secondary sources of the chemical, said Oscoda Township Supervisor Aaron Weed said. The Air Force also used the foam to help put out forest fires in the area but refuses to take responsibility for those sites, Weed said.

The township's fire departments never used the firefighting foam, he said.

The Air Force has installed two granular activated carbon filtration units in the area, Weed said, but "the plume is so huge that what that system is filtering is just a tiny bit of that contamination.”

“What’s leaching out of these plumes is going directly into the surface waters and then in 24 hours it’s in Lake Huron,” said Weed, who also faulted the state for failing to take a tougher regulatory stance in years past.  

The U.S. Air Force did not respond to requests for comment. But in September, the Defense Department's Maureen Sullivan testified before a U.S. House subcommittee that the department had identified 401 active and former bases where a PFOS or PFOA release had occurred.

The department prioritized those site based on a "worst first" process and was still determining cleanup costs, Sullivan said. 

Since the contaminant was confirmed at Wurtsmith in 2010, the chemical has traveled through ground and surface water, Clark Marsh, the AuSable River and is now threatening Lake Huron.

In 2017, foam containing sky high concentrations of PFAS was found by summer camp students on Lake Van Etten near the base, and the foam also has been found on the shores of Lake Huron, Weed said.

The contamination has affected drinking water in three residential wells, prevented residents from eating fish from Clark Marsh and made it nearly impossible to transfer the former military property to other parties for redevelopment, Snyder told Mattis in his July 24 letter.

Snyder urged Mattis to commit to a full remediation of contamination at Wurtsmith, a commitment that goes beyond years-long investigations, bottled water and some water hookups.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis

“While helpful in the short term, the resulting effect is a failure to remediate the contaminant in the environment, leaving the situation to perpetuate,” Snyder wrote.

Snyder argued the department was not taking full responsibility for the legacy of contamination at the site, he noted that the Department of Defense had not yet sought an appropriation for Wurtsmith and blamed delays on the department’s use of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1990, a contamination identification and cleanup process also called Superfund.

Snyder argued for a “reasonable limit” on the department’s investigation of the issue, instead of the years-long process currently underway

“PFAS contamination doesn’t follow a process,” Adler said Wednesday. “It continues moving whether the government decides to act on it or not.”

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