Lawmakers push Air Force to jumpstart Wurtsmith cleanup
By GARRET ELLISON | MLive.com | Published: May 6, 2020
OSCODA, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Michigan Congressional delegates are pressuring the U.S. Department of Defense to begin new stopgap measures to curb the flow of toxic fluorochemicals into the environment at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
In a Wednesday, May 6 letter, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., urged Air Force leadership to begin taking interim cleanup measures at Wurtsmith using $13.5 million in new money that Congress allocated for that purpose in December.
The letter follows critical statements made last month by U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, who accused the Air Force of “dragging its feet” by using the cash to fund several years of pollution studies rather than starting actual cleanup.
On April 15, military engineers told a local advisory board in Oscoda the earliest any new remediation efforts might begin at Wurtsmith is sometime in 2024.
Peters, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants a commitment from the Air Force to begin taking interim steps to remove toxic PFAS chemicals from the groundwater at Wurtsmith, where they’ve been seeping into lakes, rivers, wetlands and drinking water.
“I want the Air Force to explain why it came to this decision,” Peters said, calling it “inconsistent” with conversations he’s had with military leaders on the issue.
The letter went to John Henderson, assistant Air Force secretary overseeing installations, energy and environment. Henderson visited Oscoda last spring on Peters’ invite and got an earful from locals upset with the snail’s pace at which the military is tackling the pollution.
State regulators took their first samples of PFAS contamination at Wurtsmith in 2010.
Peters told MLive that Henderson previously promised that he would devote “attention and time trying to get Wurtsmith cleanup going on a quicker pace.” Subsequently, Peters said Congress provided funding for interim cleanup at closed bases.
Wurtsmith got nearly 30% of the $48 million total allocated to the Air Force, which nearly doubles the total spending on PFAS efforts there to date. Peters said Congress wants the new money used to stem the spread of contamination, not for additional study. The Air Force already has funding for that, he said.
“The intent of the congressional action was to jumpstart actual cleanup,” Peters said. “The Air Force should know that intent.”
In April, Air Force remediation engineers told the local restoration advisory board that it plans to award a contract this fall to begin a base-wide remedial investigation that would last until 2022. After that, a feasibility study and more protracted bureaucratic decision-making steps would come before any cleanup system could begin design or construction.
The Air Force says a slower approach is warranted because the chemicals haven’t contaminated drinking water sources as badly in Oscoda as they have at other U.S. military bases. At latest count, there are 651 active or former bases where the use of chemical-laden firefighting foam called AFFF is known or suspected to have caused pollution.
Oscoda officials, lawmakers and state regulators say there’s already enough evidence of public harm from the pollution to take interim steps. They point to advisories to limit or avoid consumption of local fish and game and avoid contact with toxic lake foam. Those advisories have been issued based on the state’s own data collection and analysis.
Although there are a couple groundwater treatment systems operating on the base, data shows they aren’t really capturing concentrated plumes entering local surface water bodies like Van Etten Lake, which is regularly best with toxic foam that washes onto the township beach.
Peters said, “There’s no shortage of data.”
“That’s just a stalling technique,” he said. “There is plenty of data. It’s scientifically valid. It’s the same runaround the people of Oscoda have been getting for years. Enough is enough.”