Air Force plan to stop toxic lake foam a ‘step in the right direction’
By GARRET ELLISON | MLive.com | Published: August 27, 2020
OSCODA, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — A senior Pentagon official says the Air Force will install a line of extraction wells across a high-strength contaminant plume that’s causing toxic foam to accumulate on the shoreline of a local beach across from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.
That’s according to two people who toured the former base this week with John Henderson, assistant Air Force secretary overseeing installations, energy and the environment.
Henderson came to Oscoda on Tuesday at the request of U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, who’s pushing the Air Force to install stopgap measures while military engineers proceed through a drawn-out remediation process that’s many years away from completion.
Kildee and Aaron Weed, Oscoda Township supervisor, met with Henderson for a couple hours. Both came away cautiously optimistic about interim cleanup plans that local activists have been skeptical would meaningfully curb the PFAS chemicals entering Van Etten Lake, a 1,320-acre waterbody adjacent to the former B-52 bomber base.
Toxic surfactant foam caused by PFAS in the water has been a regular problem around the lake, but particularly at Ken Ratliff Park, a local beach with a playground that draws children.
“Van Etten Lake has been a source of frustration for the community,” said Kildee, who made a trip to Oscoda in between stops to eyeball wetlands restoration at the Crow Island State Game Area and promote the lead exposure registry project in Flint. “That’s where the people are. It’s important that the Air Force takes more aggressive action.”
“What (Henderson) showed me felt like a step in the right direction,” Kildee said. “If they can move as quickly as possible on it, I’ll be happier than I have been for some time.”
Kildee said Henderson shared plans to install 11 new extraction wells — which intercept groundwater and pump it to a treatment facility — along the F-41 highway, which would “completely encompass and slightly exceed what’s currently known to be the width of the plume migrating into Van Etten Lake.”
The new extraction wells would be coupled with additional filtration capacity at the central granular activated carbon (GAC) treatment facility, he said.
“This is part of what the community has been pushing for,” said Weed, who also sits on a Wurtsmith cleanup restoration advisory board. “I think pressure from Congress and the community has had a big effect on having the Air Force do a better process.”
The plans mark a stark reversal for the Air Force, which infuriated local activists and officials in April when new site managers said they weren’t planning any stopgap cleanup actions despite getting $13.5 million in new funding for that specific purpose from Congress.
In June, the Air Force changed its tune and announced plans to award contracts for interim cleanup measures, saying it “heard the community’s concerns.”
Henderson’s visit yielded the most details to date on those measures, which are projected to cost about $5.5 million and should be installed starting in late 2021. State regulators say the measures outlined by Kildee match with preliminary plans they’ve seen that are still being drafted.
In addition to extraction wells along Van Etten Lake, Kildee said the Air Force is also planning to install four wells at the former base fire training area No. 2 that should intercept more polluted groundwater entering Clark’s Marsh — a wetland so highly contaminated with PFAS that no fish or other wildlife are safe to eat. Clark’s Marsh is connected to the Au Sable River, which flows into Lake Huron a short distance downriver.
Total cleanup at Wurtsmith has been estimated to cost about $251 million. A remediation plan that addresses the entirety of contamination at the base is several years away. That plan is not expected to address plumes that have been discovered in several satellite locations around Oscoda where firefighting foam was used to fight forest and structure fires.
This week marks Henderson’s second visit to Oscoda. The secretary attended a public townhall in April 2019 at the invitation of Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who leaned on the Air Force after remediation officials adopted what Peters called an “aggressive and defensive posture” in a dispute with the state over the pace and adequacy of cleanup. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) settled that three-year dispute this summer.
There were no public meetings this time. Henderson and the small group visited Ratliff Park and the on-base central treatment facility. The Air Force did not announce the visit nor make Henderson available for media questions.
Weed said he came away feeling like Henderson “had a firm grasp on what’s going on here.”
Kildee said their discussion briefly touched on the applicability of new, lower state groundwater cleanup standards for the compounds PFOS and PFOA that took effect this summer. Concerns with the Air Force’s past reticence to comply with a similarly-low threshold for PFAS in surface water prompted Kildee’s peer lawmaker, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, to draft a defense authorization bill provision that would essentially bind the military to those state rules.
“He made reference to it,” Kildee said. “We specifically talked about the fact that this is a new factor. I can’t say I heard him say anything that would imply they felt obligated to adhere to it. I’m not suggesting he said they wouldn’t either.”
In response to MLive’s question about whether Henderson is familiar with new state rules and whether the Air Force has any intention of committing to follow them, Air Force public affairs staff said its already complying with the state’s surface water limit of 12 parts-per-trillion (ppt) for PFOS in groundwater that’s discharged to a local creek after being treated.
“After we pull the groundwater out of the ground and treat it, the water we discharge to surface waters meets the discharge limits that EGLE has given us,” according to a statement from Air Force public affairs office Mark Kinkade.
Kinkade said the Air Force is using the 12-ppt threshold to “delineate” groundwater contamination plumes during the present stage of the long site remediation process and “it will be evaluated as a cleanup standard where groundwater and surface water interface.”
Kildee said the proposed Slotkin amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has gotten the Defense Department’s attention and “I think they are pretty anxious about the possibility that it’s going to become law.”
Henderson, Kildee said, “I think recognizes that this is the direction things are going and that they had better get on board.”
Despite failed attempts in the past couple years to pass legislation that would give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the authority to order cleanups at sites contaminated with PFAS, and order the EPA to add the chemicals to a list of contaminants regulated in drinking water, Kildee said overall movement on PFAS in Congress is encouraging.
“I think anybody, either in the Department of Defense or private industry, had better fasten their seatbelt,” Kildee said. “When I think about the change in the way Congress has addressed PFAS since we launched the task force (in 2019); from then to now is like night and day.”