Democratic lawmakers urge Air Force clean up PFAS from Wurthsmith base

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Two Michigan congressional leaders on Wednesday lambasted the Air Force for its reported failure to clean up PFAS contamination near the long-closed Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, saying that time for action has passed and the military branch needs to act.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, led a virtual news conference with local environmental group members called Need Our Water Now to tell the Air Force brass they have lost patience with the lack of clean-up responsibility in the PFAS contamination in the Clark’s Marsh area.

Michigan Democratic congressional leaders argue that the Air Force has been too slow to clean up PFAS contamination in and around the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base grounds in Oscoda Township, Michigan.

The lack of urgency for the clean-up, both Democratic lawmakers said, is "unacceptable."

"We are in the area where the citizens of the Oscoda community cannot wait any longer or should they. That's why we are going to be continuing to press this," Peters said. "The thing that is most disturbing right now is the lack of transparency from the Air Force."

The incoming leadership at the Air Force needs to "understand the urgency of the issue. They have to be more aggressive," he added. 

Kildee echoed the sentiments, adding that to him the deadline to act is now.

"I've lost my patience with the Air Force. The deadline is today," said Kildee, whose district includes Oscoda. "This has gone on far too far."

Air Force officials said this month in a briefing with reporters there have been steps to remove PFAS —otherwise known as forever chemicals — that leach into ground water in the area near the base closed in 1993.

But Air Force didn't seem keen on abiding by state standards — as requested by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration — to clean up PFAS contamination at the location.

Wurtsmith was once used as a training center for Air Force firefighters, and they also would help to fight fires in the Oscoda region. The foam used to battle these fires contained PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

But officials claim that they are taking action and are not sitting still — an assessment Peters, Kildee and other environmental leaders said is simply too slow.

Kildee said congressional leaders got federal funds for the Air Force to spend to clean up the site, and they haven't been put to good use. If not for environmentalists and leaders in Oscoda, he said, not even a basic effort would have been made.

"And while we do understand there may be the need for more discovery in terms of the size and scope of the problem, what we know is what we know," Kildee said. "And the Air Force should be working right now to clean up the threat, the imminent danger that was posed by this. They need to be transparent with the community."

Cathy Wusterbarth, a PFAS activist and a co-leader of Need Our Water Now and Oscoda Citizens for Clean Water, said "we hosted the Wurtsmith Air Force Base with pride" when it was open.

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

But toxic chemicals flowing into the drinking water and underground are the legacy that harms fish and humans, she said. And that has left residents "upset, confused and scared," she added.

"The lack of action by the U.S. Air Force has further complicated and deepened these feelings. It is well documented these chemicals are toxic," Wusterbarth said. "Why would the U.S. Air Force not take full responsibility for cleaning up PFAS in the same timely manner as private industry? Virtually no clean-up efforts have taken place."

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