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With ‘trepidation,’ Michigan settles Wurtsmith PFAS cleanup dispute

PFAS foam collects on the shoreline of Van Etten Lake in Oscoda, Mich., near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. The foam is one of several pollution concerns at the heart of a dispute between state regulators and the U.S. military over contamination cleanup in Oscoda.

GARRET ELLISON, MLIVE.COM/TNS

By GARRET ELLISON | (Walker, Mich.) MLive.com | Published: July 26, 2020

OSCODA, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Michigan environmental regulators have settled a three-year dispute with the U.S. Air Force over the pace and adequacy of cleanup of toxic chemicals at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, a move that comes as military engineers ready new contracts to perform stopgap measures that state and local officials feel are long overdue.

This month, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) formally ended dispute resolution talks with the Air Force that were initiated by the state in 2017 during former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration under an obscure federal environmental grant program called the Defense and State Memorandum of Agreement (DSMOA).

Mike Neller, a former U.S. Navy submarine captain who became director of EGLE’s remediation division in December, wrote a July 16 letter to the Air Force stating that Michigan considers all dispute issues resolved, but noted that “EGLE does this with some trepidation.”

“This is due to the fact that much of the dispute resolution is based on stated future plans and the USAF has historically not provided timelines or milestones with expected completion dates associated with plans,” Neller wrote. “We are requesting that this practice change for the process to move forward where EGLE can operate in good faith with the USAF.”

The dispute has simmered in the background of an excruciatingly slow remediation process at Wurtsmith that’s been marked by increasing outrage from community activists who think EGLE has mismanaged site enforcement and has allowed the Air Force to drag the situation out.

“They let them off the hook and are hoping they will act with a sense of urgency,” said Tony Spaniola, a metro Detroit attorney who owns a home on Van Etten Lake across from the base. “It’s clear you can’t say ‘pretty please’ to the Air Force and expect them to see the light.”

The DSMOA dispute involved seven points related the Air Force’s site planning, pollution monitoring and investigation pace around the former B-52 bomber base, where the soil and groundwater are highly contaminated from past use of AFFF firefighting foam that is laden with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS.

The widespread pollution has sparked health advisories warning people not to consume fish, deer or other wildlife in several areas, as well as to avoid toxic surface water foam. The Air Force has not tackled those issues as aggressively as the state and the community would like, arguing that they are less important than drinking water concerns.

High pollution levels have been found in some private wells around Wurtsmith, but drinking water contamination levels around Oscoda generally have fallen below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial guidance threshold of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

A major bone of contention has been the Air Force’s reluctance to comply with a lower, 12 ppt state cleanup threshold for the toxic compound perfluorooctane sulfate, or PFOS, at the point where groundwater vents to surface bodies like Van Etten Lake and the Au Sable River — both of which are contaminated by PFAS chemicals leaching through the old base.

The Air Force has agreed to use that standard as a benchmark during a new, forthcoming phase of site testing and investigation, but has not yet committed to cleaning up to that level. The Air Force says it will decide whether to comply with that cleanup level in the future.

“They are not going to do that unless absolutely forced to because it’ll set a precedent across the country they don’t want to set,” said Spaniola.

In the meantime, a new, stopgap cleanup finally is being planned.

In the letter, Neller asked the Air Force to provide by Sept. 30 clear timelines for deploying interim cleanup measures that state and local activists have been seeking for years.

On July 14, the Air Force awarded a contract to expand plume capture and to add filtration capacity on an existing carbon remediation system pumping polluted groundwater from under the former base fire training area near Clark’s Marsh, and to install extraction wells to intercept contamination entering nearby Van Etten Lake at the Oscoda Township beach.

The beach and the adjacent park have been a sore point with locals upset at the toxic surfactant foam that regularly develops on the shoreline.

The Air Force is paying $5.5 million for the two interim cleanup projects out of a $13.5 million special Congressional appropriation for new cleanup actions in December. The Air Force has estimated total cleanup of all contamination at the base would cost about $251 million.

Design of the new, interim cleanup measures is expected to begin this fall and, during a virtual meeting of the base Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) on Wednesday, the Air Force said they are expected to be installed completely sometime in 2022.

The two stopgap actions are among four such measures around the base that Neller asked the Air Force to undertake in a January letter. The Air Force has resisted calls for interim cleanup actions, arguing that more overall site study is needed. EGLE believe enough data has already been gathered about the plumes during the past decade to move forward.

“We think this is good news,” Neller said. “Do I think it’s enough? No.”

Neller said part of the impetus for ending the dispute was a desire to start fresh. Neller is among several new faces in site management on both the state and federal site. Longtime EGLE site manager Robert Delaney was replaced last summer by Beth Place. On the Air Force side, civil engineer Dave Gibson took over site lead from Matt Maars this year.

“We’re moving into an area where there’s been some infusion of money,” said Neller. “I thought it made sense to clear the board. Let’s be done with these.”

“If there’s any other disputes as we move forward, I’d like a clear board to focus on new disputes and not just add to the pile,” he said. “I like things straightforward like that.”

Arnie Leriche, a former environmental engineer at the EPA who served several years as co-chair of the RAB, said the dispute created a situation that allowed the Air Force to obscure what should have been open, transparent communications between them and the state.

“It’s sort of like a legal discovery and mediation-type process,” Leriche said. “The two parties are prohibited from releasing details.”

Leriche said the dispute resolution dragged on longer than was intended and never was escalated by either party up the chain to state and federal political appointees, who are supposed to resolve things in the event of an impasse.

Spaniola thinks EGLE should have been more aggressive with the dispute and faults the department for not relying more on allies in Congress like Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., both of whom have pressured the Air Force to devote more resources to Wurtsmith and to speed the process along in Oscoda.

“On our side, that’s where we have clout,” Spaniola said. “EGLE never bothered to draw on that and coordinate with those people. That’s the strongest card and they never play it.”

Spaniola is skeptical the new, interim cleanup measures will do much to curb the plumes entering Van Etten Lake.

“For $5.5 million, there’s just no way they can do the Clark’s Marsh thing and make any reasonable dent in the Van Etten Lake problem. It’s pretty clear.”

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The former Wurtsmith Air Force Base fire training ground in Oscoda Township, Mich., is seen Aug. 12, 2016. Use of firefighting foam at the base has created toxic chemical plumes that are leaching through the local groundwater.
GARRET ELLISON, MLIVE.COM/TNS

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