Deal to speed Air Force PFAS cleanup derided as 'propaganda'
By GARRET ELLISON | MLive.com, Walker, Mich. | Published: July 9, 2019
OSCODA, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Michigan’s verbal agreement with the U.S. Air Force to speed the pace of cleanup at the former Wurtsmith air base in Oscoda is mere “propaganda” that does little to actually bind the military to any action, local officials and activists say.
Oscoda Township supervisor Aaron Weed and Metro Detroit attorney Tony Spaniola blasted the agreement as a paper tiger in reaction to the joint announcement by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the Air Force.
Both men are deeply involved in the cleanup battle around the closed base, where local lakes, rivers, drinking water and wildlife are polluted with toxic fluorochemicals called PFAS.
While the deal might sound good on paper, they say it actually works against speeding the sluggish investigation and cleanup by undermining political pressure from Capitol Hill, which has elevated the site’s profile and spurred a visit from a top Air Force official in April.
“This is really a poke in the eye to our Congressional delegation,” said Spaniola, who owns property on Van Etten Lake near the base and is active with the NOW (Need Our Water) group. “They’ve been our true champions on this thing and this deal is basically telling them what it’s telling us: We’re not going to do anything.”
“There’s no substance to this,” Weed said. “There’s nothing to enforce. Most of what’s listed here is the Air Force considering things, not actually doing something.”
“This is just some writing thrown out there with zero substantiation behind it,” he said.
The comments follow a July 1 announcement by EGLE (formerly DEQ), which listed several points of agreement with the Air Force that the state characterized as a milestone following more than a year of formal dispute talks with defense officials.
Following an April 25 meeting, EGLE said the Air Force agreed to:
— Start up a third on-base groundwater treatment system by the end of this year to capture contaminated groundwater that’s long been discharged by outfall pipe to Van Etten Creek, which connects Van Etten Lake to the Au Sable River.
— “Review the possibility” of interim measures to capture high concentration plumes entering Van Etten Lake, which the state says is causing toxic foam to pile on the shoreline.
— Use Michigan’s very low 12 parts-per-trillion (ppt) enforceable standard on the individual compound PFOS at the point which groundwater vents to surface waters “in its investigation when sampling and measuring” that particular compound.
— “Evaluate” the 12-ppt limit and Michigan’s 70-ppt limit on PFOS and PFOA in groundwater “as legally applicable requirements” when eventually selecting remedial cleanup actions under a part of federal Superfund law that requires the military consider relevant state laws.
— Commit to submitting an investigation report known as the Expanded Site Inspection (ESI) by the end of this year rather than in the spring of 2020 and then implement a base-wide remedial investigation after the ESI report has been evaluated.
The agreement was spearheaded by former remediation division director Sue Leeming, who retired at the end of June. Longtime state site manager Robert Delaney was replaced this year by Beth Place.
The agreement does not end the ongoing dispute talks. EGLE defended the deal as a step in the right direction, but acknowledged that more work is needed to address the Wurtsmith pollution.
“The points of agreement reached at the April 25th meeting represent progress in the ongoing Wurtsmith dispute resolution process,” said EGLE spokesperson Scott Dean.
“But much more work remains to be done and (the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team) remains committed to holding the Air Force accountable for the clean-up of the Wurtsmith site and protecting the residents of Oscoda from PFAS contamination,” he said.
Locals involved with the base Restoration Advisory Board sounded skeptical about the deal when it was announced. Weed and Spaniola think the state got played.
For one, they say the groundwater treatment system that’s now supposed to start operating this year was already on pace to do so.
The so-called Mission Street system design was already under contract. According to Weed, the Air Force began taking steps more than a year ago to install PFAS filtration on the existing treatment system, which was originally installed to clean groundwater of other contaminants like TCE and benzene. The PFAS-laden discharge is piped to Van Etten Creek.
That would be a third granular activated carbon (GAC) system on base, but Weed and Spaniola say it’s still a mere Band-Aid on a larger problem, because “it does nothing to address the Van Etten Lake public safety issues that have prompted the most recent round of health advisories at the beach, the campground and the youth camp,” said Spaniola.
New PFAS treatment systems are badly needed along F-41, the main road running between the base and Van Etten Lake, to stop the plumes entering the lake, said Weed.
On agreeing to test and eventually consider the state’s 12-ppt PFOS limit, Spaniola said the progress appears to be moving backward. The Air Force agreed to comply with the standard in a spring of 2017, he said, but has since fought the state’s attempts to enforce violations using that threshold, citing federal sovereign immunity.
Weed and Spaniola aren’t impressed with completing the ESI inspection report a few months earlier. Both men say the Air Force has been taking advantage of provisions in the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund law, to slow-walk the site investigation for years.
Once the report is turned in a few months early, “they will implement investigating what they’ve already investigated,” said Weed.
On April 24, John Henderson, assistant Air Force secretary overseeing installations, energy and environment, told a townhall crowd in Oscoda that the Air Force was about “halfway” through the entire site investigation process, and planned to begin another 18 months of remedial investigation once the ESI report was finished. After that, a feasibility study could take another two years to determine how much cleanup the base needs.
Weed, Spaniola and others have argued the Air Force could move more quickly if it wanted to because EGLE has already collected vast amounts of site data that the Air Force could use, and the CERCLA process allows for speedier interim or time-critical actions “when imminent and substantial endangerment exists,” said Weed.
“Since exposure has been found in the area to humans and animals, that’s the process they should be using.”
Spaniola said a coordinated legal, political and administrative effort is needed to move the needle with the Air Force.
“That means working hand in hand with the Congressionals, the township and people on the ground,” he said. “Partner with us. Partner with your allies. It has to be a multifaceted attack here to get thing to happen.”
“We got (Henderson) to show up because that type of political pressure was brought to bear. Then we get the rug pulled out from under us with this kind of stuff.”