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Did Wurtsmith Air Force Base cause health woes?

By KEITH MATHENY | Detroit Free Press | Published: April 17, 2016

OSCODA, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — For years, Tammy Dumaresq and her family spent time at a family cabin on Alvin Road, about 2 miles from the now-shuttered Wurtsmith Air Force Base, swimming nearby in the pond created by the Foote Dam.

In 1991, Dumaresq and her family moved to Oscoda, just a few miles from picturesque Lake Huron.

"That was part of the reason to come to town, because the house values dropped after the base closure and made it so affordable," she said.

Both Dumaresq's son, who was a year old  when they moved to the area, and a daughter born in 1997, were later diagnosed with problems with their thyroids, glands in the neck that secrete important hormones related to growth and metabolism. Dumaresq said her daughter was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder causing chronic inflammation and ultimate failure of the thyroid gland.

"The doctors said both of their thyroids were fried out," she said.

A definitive source of their illness remains a mystery. But Demaresq, along with former Wurtsmith personnel and other current and former neighbors of the base, say they have a prime suspect for the health ailments they have endured over the years:

As area residents now are forced to seek alternative water supplies and uneasily await a resolution to the latest discovery of groundwater contamination emanating from the former air base about 170 miles north of Detroit, some are wondering whether the base's toxic history is the source of their current health problems.

The most recent revelation about the contamination at Wurtsmith, which closed in 1993, is that perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs -- a legacy of firefighting foam used at the base for many years -- have migrated from groundwater under the base to pollute nearby residential wells.

Last month, the local health department suggested residents near the base with elevated levels of PFCs in their wells find an alternative water source as a precautionary measure, as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Air Force continue to test the scope and severity of the spreading contamination. The DEQ also issued an advisory against eating fish caught in nearby ponds or the nearby section of the Au Sable River because of PFC contamination in 2012.

But that's just the latest in a history of harmful surface and groundwater pollution at the base that goes back decades. In the 1990s, trichloroethylene, or TCE, a solvent used to clean airplanes, also was found in the base's water wells.

Both TCE and PFCs have been found in scientific studies to potentially affect thyroid function.

And when a state Department of Health and Human Services official mentioned last month that PFCs can affect the thyroid, "I felt like, 'There is finally an answer,'" Dumaresq said.

But getting conclusive proof of a link between their ailments and the water contamination at the base has been problematic because  no one at the federal or state level has ever done what it would take to answer that question: comprehensive health surveys and scientific research on the health condition of Wurtsmith base veterans and their families, and those who live or lived close by.

Leaking chemical

According to the Air Force's account, in October 1977, a Wurtsmith base housing resident complained about a peculiar odor and taste in the drinking water. The suspected source of contamination was Building 43, the jet engine repair shop, where a 500-gallon underground storage tank was used to temporarily store trichloroethylene after it had been used to degrease engine parts. Excavation of the tank showed that a leak occurred at the connection between the filler pipe and the tank. How long it had existed was unknown.

The leak was repaired, but by the following year, nearby residents off the base were asking questions about the contamination and its potential health impacts to them. The U.S. Geological Survey investigated groundwater at the base and identified plumes of TCE; dicholorethane, or DCE, another potentially harmful chemical; and benzene, a petroleum-based solvent and known carcinogen.

The State of Michigan announced its intent to sue the military over the contamination in 1979, in an effort to speed up the cleanup. By 1980, a private residence off-base was found with TCE contamination in its drinking water well.

In January 1994, the EPA moved to add Wurtsmith to its National Priorities List, essentially making it a Superfund site -- the worst of the worst, most problematic contaminated sites in the U.S.  The base was evaluated by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, created by Congress in the Superfund law with a mandate to conduct a public health assessment for every site on the priorities list.

"ATSDR concluded that past exposures to groundwater may have posed an increased risk of developing adverse health effects," the agency wrote in its 2001 report on the Wurtsmith base.

But the report lacked critical data: While noting TCE existed in on-base drinking water supplies and at least one off-base well at levels high enough to warrant concern, it added, "it is unknown whether the concentrations persisted at high enough levels for long enough durations to actually pose a public health hazard."

Regarding public worries of whether there were increased cancer incidences in the Oscoda community, ATSDR stated, "No health outcome studies were available to address this community concern."

The report concluded that future exposures to groundwater were not expected to cause a public health hazard -- not because the water was clean, but because the community switched to the Huron Shores Regional Utility Authority for drinking water piped in from nearby and unaffected Lake Huron.

When asked why no health studies have  been conducted with former base residents or those living nearby, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner noted that as a federal facility, it is the Air Force and ATSDR's purview to provide public health evaluations. She cited the agency's 2001 reports and added, "The ATSDR's Public Health Assessment did not recommend a health study at the time."

But following the relatively recent discovery of migrating PFCs in groundwater, the state health department "is currently evaluating how people could be exposed to contamination from the former Air Force Base," Eisner said.

Before any large-scale health study, a determination would need to be made of who may have been exposed to what chemicals, at what levels, for how long, she said. "These in-depth investigations would ultimately be led by ATSDR or a state and federal partnership," she said.

Inquiries to the U.S. Air Force were directed to a spokeswoman at the Pentagon, who in turn directed them to the Air Force Civil Engineer Center in San Antonio overseeing base decommissioning, which did not respond by Friday afternoon.

Symptom connection

For decades, Roger Arvo said he never made the connection.

Not as his stress attacks and nearly blinding, immediate-onset headaches drove him to early retirement from a successful career as an infrastructure architect. Not as his wife developed thyroid problems, or as he had surgery to remove lumps in his breasts -- a relatively unusual malady in men. Not as he developed hormonal deficiencies that will require supplemental therapy for the rest of his days.

But as Arvo described his ailments to his boss one day, he got an unexpected response. "'You've got the same symptoms as me,' he said," Arvo recalled. "He was at Camp Lejeune."

That military base in North Carolina was discovered to have harmful chemicals in its water supply over decades -- and many former base residents believe their health problems are connected. In 2012, President Barack Obama signed a law to begin providing medical care to those affected by the toxins there.

In 2014, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tied the Camp Lejeune water contamination to increased risk for several cancers including liver, kidney and ALS.

Arvo had served all of his four years in the Air Force outside of basic training, from 1974 to 1977, at Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

His wife lived on the base with him. His son was born while they lived there.

"We noticed the water tasted funny," he said. "Other relatives would visit and say, 'Your water tastes weird,' but nobody knew why."

For seven decades, Wurtsmith served as an aviation facility for the U.S. military before it was closed in 1993 as part of a military consolidation following the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But before that happened, in the mid-1980s, another threat was discovered.

Trichloroethylene was found in Wurtsmith's drinking water wells at startling levels -- 6,000 parts per billion, according to a 1992 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report. In another portion of the groundwater plume throughout the base -- and extending into the neighboring community -- TCE levels were above 10,000 parts per billion. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act now puts the TCE standard above which a health risk can be expected at 5 parts per billion.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acute TCE exposure can harm a person's nervous system, kidneys and heart, it can cause birth defects and is tied to a host of different cancers.

As Arvo sought assistance from the Veterans Administration for his ailments, his physician provided him with a letter indicating her belief that his potential exposure to TCE could have contributed to his health conditions. But the VA wouldn't even look at the letter as it rejected his claims, he said.

"I've been trying -- myself and I'm sure other veterans who were stationed at the base -- trying to get some kind of acknowledgement that the exposure ever even happened," said Arvo, who now lives in Beaverton.

The military has records of who was stationed at the base and when. It should start finding those men and women and examining their health histories, he said.

"I come from a scientific background; I know how this works," he said. "I don't have proof that I was specifically poisoned. But you can't find that proof when nobody's ever done a study."

And he's not alone in wondering.

Brenda Gronefeld's home on East River Road is less than a half-mile from the former base. Three drinking water wells on the property have been determined to be contaminated with "diesel fuel, firefighting foam and arsenic," she said. State officials have told her not to even bother attempting to drill a fourth well.

Gronefeld drank the home's water for more than a year before learning of the contamination. Over that time, two of her dogs died, and a third has permanent liver damage, she said.

"I'm watching these dogs die and I'm wondering, how long do I got?" she said.

Gronefeld recalled a night last year, before she learned of the contamination, where she staggered from her bed, called her son on the phone and said, "I think I'm dying."

"My son said, 'Ma, the only common denominator between you and the dogs is the water. Stop drinking the water,'" she said.

Tests she had conducted on her well water came up clean. But subsequent tests conducted by the DEQ and Air Force found the elevated contaminants. She wonders why there was a difference.

Now Gronefeld must pay for alternative water to drink, cook and bathe. She's considering action against the property management company that sold her the house for not disclosing the contaminated wells.

"I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere with no water -- here in a house that's not worth 2 cents," she said.

Staggering cost

According to a 2010 federal report, nearly 900 Superfund sites in the U.S. are abandoned military facilities or facilities that provided materials to or otherwise supported the military. The potential liability from connecting people's health disorders to the toxic pollution they were exposed to at those hundreds of facilities could mean a staggering cost.

Still, a duty is owed to people like Arvo, he said.

"I would ask that all of us who served our country be recognized for all of the things we've gone through," he said. "Being patriotic and joining up and volunteering. And a lot of us have suffered from the exposure. But there is no active research to find out if there is a link.

"I'm not saying the Air Force did this on purpose. But geez, man, it's just not right."

kmatheny@freepress.com

(c) 2016 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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