Air Force to clean up contamination of Oscoda base after pushback

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

The Air Force Civil Engineer Center announced it is awarding a contract in July that will expand capture zones to better control migration of PFAS contaminants from a former air force base in Oscoda following pushes from politicians.

The Air Force announced the contract Friday with plans to expand capture fields already in place at a former fire training site and the Central Treatment System located on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

The military is allocating $13.5 million to remedy the site. 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.

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

“The Air Force has heard the community’s concerns,” said Stephen TerMaath, chief of the Air Force’s Base Realignment and Closure Program Management Division. “We are eager to begin taking action at these specific locations.” 

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. The Air Force began using them in the 1970s as a firefighting agent to extinguish petroleum fires. At the time, the Air Force used the product as directed by the manufacturer.

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency established health advisory levels in drinking water for PFOS and PFOA. Since then, the Air Force said it has worked to ensure no one is drinking water over the EPA’s advisory.

The next step in the Remedial Investigation (RI) will provide critical information on the nature and extent of PFOS and PFOA in soil, sediment, surface water, fish and wildlife, and includes a risk assessment to determine what is needed for a comprehensive cleanup at the former base.

“What the RI also means is that we’re now able to conduct interim actions like these while we wait for the investigations and findings to come back,” said Dave Gibson, BRAC Environmental Coordinator.

The Air Force is awarding the contract one year earlier than anticipated and will work with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, to verify work plans, and the design and installation, Gibson said.

The announcement comes after Sen. Gary Peters wrote to the Air Force last month urging the branch to expedite PFAS cleanup efforts at the former base in Oscoda. He said the Air Force’s treatment efforts to date would not adequately capture and stop continued spread of the PFAS.

Peters said residents have been suffering for more than a decade. The contamination and exposure is having a devastating effect on the local environment, economy and is affecting the health of residents, he said Saturday.

Sen. Gary Peters

“I pressed the Air Force to act more quickly because the people of Oscoda have waited far too long. That’s why I worked to secure additional funding for PFAS clean-up at sites like Wurtsmith," Peters said in a statement Saturday. "While I’m encouraged that the Air Force is now moving at a faster rate and ahead of its schedule, we cannot take our foot off the pedal."

Peters helped secure bipartisan provisions that were signed into law in December to address the contamination, which includes a provision to phase out the Department of Defense's use of firefighting foam containing PFAS. 

He said he'll continue to pressure the Air Force to act swiftly to clean up the pollution while working with community members who endured hardships from it.

Industries produce thousands of versions of the man-made compounds. They are used in countless products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent sports gear, cosmetics, and grease-resistant food packaging, along with firefighting foams.

Public health studies on exposed populations have associated them with an array of health problems, including some cancers, and weakened immunity. The advent of widespread testing for the contaminant over the past few years found it in high levels in many public water systems around the country. The administration initially sought in 2018 to suppress a federal toxicology warning on the danger of the compounds, then publicly vowed action.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_