Quit 'horsing us around' with Wurtsmith AFB cleanup, locals tell Air Force
By GARRET ELLISON | MLive.com, Walker, Mich. | Published: April 25, 2019
OSCODA, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Kathleen Sanchez is worried about PFAS in the drinking water at her home on Loud Drive across Van Etten Lake from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which is bleeding the toxic fluorochemicals into Oscoda groundwater.
There’s cancer among family at her home. Her dog developed tumors and had to be put down. She’s asked the Air Force to test the water several times. Like many across the state, Sanchez is frustrated by the high cost homeowners face getting an independent lab test.
On Wednesday, she got a chance to ask senior Air Force leaders why there wasn’t greater access to PFAS testing, or bottled or municipal water, for her area.
The answer: It’s unwarranted based on four-year-old data.
“Basically, I’m back to square one,” said Sanchez, following her turn at the microphone during the public meeting. “The burden falls on the homeowner.”
Frustration over PFAS drew Pentagon bigwigs to Michigan this week. John Henderson, assistant Air Force secretary overseeing installations, energy and environment, visited Oscoda on an invite from U.S. Sen. Gary Peters. The ranking Democrat on the Senate homeland security committee has criticized an “aggressive and defensive posture” the Air Force has adopted in an ongoing dispute with state regulators over the pace and adequacy of Wurtsmith PFAS cleanup.
Henderson, Peters and Air Force environmental officials spent part of the day eyeballing sites like Clark’s Marsh, a wetland loaded with pollutants from the base, and Ken Ratliff Park, a beach on Van Etten Lake where toxic PFAS foam has become a near-perpetual shoreline presence thanks to highly-polluted groundwater entering from the base.
Past use of chemical-based AFFF firefighting foam at Wurtsmith has polluted drinking water, lakes, rivers and local wildlife.
The Air Force group took questions from the public for an hour prior to a regular meeting of the Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board at the community center.
Some asked questions. Some voiced displeasure with the apparent snail’s pace the Air Force appears to be following at Wurtsmith. Throughout the meeting, Henderson and his cohorts blamed timing rigidity in the “CERCLA process,” which is remediation shorthand for regulated steps the military follows when investigating pollution.
Henderson expressed a commitment to tackling the problem and ensuring the health and safety of service members and families. In his opening remarks, he acknowledged PFAS as a problem involving more than just the two compounds for which the Environmental Protection Agency has developed a hotly-debated health advisory level.
“This is a bigger problem than just the Air Force. It’s probably bigger than just PFOS and PFOA. There’s a whole family of perfluorinated compounds we’re going to have to address at some point,” Henderson said. “We’re committed to seeing this through.”
Henderson said the Air Force is about “halfway” through the entire multiyear investigation process and it expects to finish a supplemental site inspection later this year. Once that’s done, the next step is another 18 months of remedial investigation.
Then comes a feasibility study that could take another two years to determine how much cleanup the base needs. Presently, there are two granular activated carbon (GAC) systems extracting and filtering contaminated groundwater. But regulators at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), formerly the DEQ, say that’s not enough. The state wants more treatment systems installed around the base.
Disagreements about the adequacy of base cleanup caught the attention of Congressional lawmakers and helped spark Henderson’s visit.
In December, the Air Force said it wouldn’t take any new action to stem the flow of contamination entering Clark’s Marsh and it didn’t have to comply with a Michigan rule limiting much PFAS can enter surface water from groundwater because the federal government has sovereign immunity from state or local laws.
The ongoing dispute remains unresolved.
Ed Davison, a property owner on Van Etten Creek and the Au Sable River next to the base, accused the Air Force of “horsing us around.”
“You deliberately set up a program that takes forever to get to a solution,” Davison said. “Please get some damn pumps up here and start pumping.”
Tony Spaniola, a Tory attorney with a home on Van Etten Lake, said he hoped the meeting would burst what he called a “bureaucratic bubble” between state regulators and the Air Force “that exists separate from reality on the ground.” He asked why the Air Force wasn’t doing more to stop the PFAS causing the foam on the lakeshore.
Spaniola noted that state data shows PFOS in groundwater entering the lake is contaminated at levels higher than 12 parts-per-trillion (ppt) — an enforceable state limit on PFAS in surface water at the heart of the dispute between the Air Force and Michigan regulators.
“The plumes you’re talking about; we’re still collecting the data and information,” said Stephen TerMaath, chief of the Air Force engineering program that’s coordinating cleanup at former bases, who was quickly interrupted by loud groans from the audience.
“We’re primarily focused on protecting drinking water,” TerMaath continued. “We hope to be moving into more definitive data that would allow us to develop remediation, if it’s necessary, to comply with the state groundwater requirements.”
After the meeting, TerMaath indicated the foam — which has sparked state advisories about accidental ingestion in Oscoda and where it’s been found in other PFAS-tainted waters around Michigan, such as in Rockford — isn’t a priority for the Air Force because there’s no state or federal regulation specific to how much PFAS is allowable in foam.
State scientists say it forms when wind or waves create a froth out of the PFAS molecules that congregate at the water’s surface. TerMaath questioned that conclusion, suggesting it could be “naturally-occurring” foam that draws in PFAS that’s getting into the lake.
“I’m not discounting it, I’m just saying there’s questions as to how it’s really caused,” he said.
TerMaath said the GAC treatment installed last year should be capturing some PFAS entering the lake. He indicated the foam is largely a visual concern the Air Force would like to address through a risk assessment during the forthcoming remedial investigation.
Presently, the state health department advisory around the foam is for ingestion, not skin contact. If the state were to change its position that dermal contact posed a hazard, TerMaath, using air quotes, said “we’d certainly be concerned about that.”
“Nevertheless, we’d be looking for them to promulgate a regulation or something — just like the EPA has a health advisory out there on things. It wouldn’t just be a letter from the health people saying ‘oh, it’s a concern.’ We’d want them to promulgate a regulation on it.”
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