Air Station Traverse City, Cherry Capital Airport report high PFAS levels

By SHERI MCWHIRTER | The Record-Eagle | Published: April 18, 2021

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Federal and state scientists confirmed initial environmental investigations at both U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City and Cherry Capital Airport showed high levels of PFAS contamination.

Both sites are now officially designated as PFAS contamination sites with the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, which is expected to lead to continued investigation and eventual cleanup plans.

Military officials on Wednesday during a virtual town hall meeting reported 11 of 12 groundwater monitoring wells around the installation's 16 acres returned results above state PFAS standards for groundwater — one well showing as much as 131 times more than the maximum limit for PFOS.

Various other PFAS chemicals additionally were found beyond state thresholds around the airbase at all but the one groundwater monitoring well, officials said.

PFAS is an acronym for a class of thousands of man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, used for decades for a vast number of commercial uses, manufacturing and firefighting. Michigan regulates seven of those chemicals in drinking, surface and groundwater.

The outcome of the Coast Guard's first round of groundwater sampling is both similar and also contradictory to results from monitoring wells at the adjacent airport; the Coast Guard found much greater concentrations of PFOS, while results at the airport discovered higher levels of PFOA.

Both PFOS and PFOA are historically associated with firefighting foam more effective than anything else at extinguishing liquid fuel fires, like those involved with aviation accidents.

The greatest concentrations of both chemicals were found in monitoring wells downgradient — downstream in groundwater terminology — from facilities where firefighting foam has been stored at both the airport and air station.

The Coast Guard found 2,100 parts per trillion of PFOS in a well near its hangar, while the airport's consultants found more than 3,000 ppt of PFOA in a well adjacent to the airport's firefighting and rescue building. Michigan's maximum contaminant levels are 16 ppt for the former and 8 ppt for the latter.

"This is a first cut at it. We've got to take a lot more samples connected to these data points so that we understand our own location, and how the contaminants exist below the surface and how they're moving," said Greg Carpenter, an environmental engineer for the Coast Guard.

Airport Director Kevin Klein agreed more soil and groundwater probes are needed to determine the boundaries of the pollution and how far and in what directions it has migrated. He said this is "the beginning of our understanding of what is out there."

State officials also agreed there are more probes to be done at both the airport and the air station.

"This is just the beginning of the investigations," said Ann Emington, site lead for both designated MPART sites.

While the investigation is not yet completed, she said the sources of the PFAS contamination at this time seems to be the military air station and the airport.

State officials said they will continue to review data from the Coast Guard and airport investigations and recommend additional probes and cleanup as necessary to protect human health and Grand Traverse Bay.

But, Emington said there currently are no plans to take samples to test for PFAS contamination in Mitchell Creek or the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay. She thinks the pollution is deep enough to not impact the stream that pours into the bay, she said, and testing the bay is not yet on the state's agenda, either.

"We're not going to jump all the way to the bay right now," Emington said, adding it is the polluters' responsibility to find the extent of the contamination.

"So we're going to let them move forward and do their next phases and see what they show. We'll make recommendations along the way if we feel that the bay needs to be sampled," she said.

The PFAS investigation at the airport began when state environmental regulators in February last year told airport officials there were approximately 20 shallow residential water wells nearby the airport that could be at risk of contamination from PFAS releases through the years.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy last year installed 10 groundwater monitoring wells along Parsons Road, and in October those wells showed extremely high levels of PFAS chemicals in the groundwater. One well showed a reading of 17,900 parts per trillion of PFOS — more than 1,118 times the state's cleanup standard.

Carpenter said that's when the Coast Guard launched its investigation, and last month submitted its preliminary assessment and initial site investigation report to state environmental regulators.

East Bay Township officials worked with state and Grand Traverse County authorities to use grant and brownfield dollars to pay for 18 affected homes in the Pine Grove neighborhood to connect to public water supplies and cap their residential water wells. That work was completed about a month ago.

All 18 homes previously used private water wells that in November tested positive for PFAS chemicals, including nine above state maximum thresholds.

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