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Peters presses Air Force on long-promised cleanup of Wurtsmith contamination

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Sen. Gary Peters is upset the U.S. Air Force says it's using $13.5 million allocated for cleaning up drinking water contaminants at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda to do further study, rather than "tangible" cleanup projects in the area.

The funding was part of $60 million that Congress provided last year to the U.S. Department of Defense to address contamination by certain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS at decommissioned military bases.

In this June 7, 2018 photo, PFAS foam gathers at the the Van Etten Creek dam in Oscoda Township, near Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

Peters wrote this week to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, John Henderson, asking him to approve short-term cleanup operations to protect community residents from the threat of further migration of the PFAS chemicals into the water supply.

He said it's "absolutely unacceptable" the service intends to do further study, noting the longer the Air Force waits, the farther the contaminants spread and the greater the cost will be because a larger area will require cleanup.

"The Air Force has been taking far too long to really start remediation activities at the former Wurtsmith base. The folks in Oscoda have been waiting years. Ten-plus years. They’ve been doing numerous studies,” Peters said in an interview.

Sen. Gary Peters

"The whole intent of this additional money and why I worked to get this money with others — this is over and above normal spending for PFAS remediation …  was you would use that to actually start remediation, actually to slowing the spread of the PFAS.”

He said the Air Force’s treatment efforts to date would not adequately capture and stop continued spread of the PFAS. 

Two well-known PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, have been used in firefighting foam deployed for emergency response and training at military and civilian airfields.

Residents and activists in the Oscoda area are also unhappy about the development, urging the Air Force to stop the flow of PFAS contaminants from Wurtsmith into Oscoda area surface waters by 2023 at the latest. 

“For too long, the people of Oscoda have had to grapple with PFAS contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base while military officials dragged their feet to avoid a meaningful cleanup,” said Tony Spaniola, a member of the group Need Our Water (NOW), Oscoda.

“We’ve been through this for more than a decade and will continue to push — even harder now — the cleanup that should have occurred years ago.”

The Air Force said it received Peters' letter and was preparing a formal written response to him.

A spokesman said the $13.5 million allocated to the Wurtsmith project would allow the Air Force to award a contract by September 2020 for its remedial investigation —- which includes funds for interim remedial actions -- a year earlier than originally planned.

"Our goal is to reduce the spread of PFOS/PFOA toward Clark's Marsh and Van Etten Lake, and the investigation will give us the data we need to develop the most effective approach," spokesman Malcolm McClendon said. 

He said the Air Force is working closely with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to implement response actions to correct gaps in existing "capture zones" to intercept three groundwater plumes containing PFOS/PFOA and increase the capacity of the associated treatment systems.

"To ensure that the interim remedial actions will be successful, additional environmental data must be collected to help us properly design and build the physical treatment systems," McClendon said. 

"The Air Force remains committed to the local community, and will continue to collaborate with EGLE to ensure all environmental remediation goals are met at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base."

It's unclear when even the interim cleanup efforts would begin, with another spokesman saying the Air Force will know more once the remedial investigation contract is awarded this summer.

"In the meantime, remediation is ongoing at Wurtsmith," spokesman Mark Kinkade said. 

"At the moment, no one is drinking PFOS/PFOA contaminated water above the EPA’s (health advisory), and our three water treatment systems continue to treat almost 1 million gallons per day of PFOS/PFOA contaminated groundwater, which is attributed to past Air Force missions."