State, feds at odds over Os­coda con­tam­i­na­tion

Dis­pute cen­ters on re­spon­si­bil­ity from Air Force ac­tiv­i­ties

The Detroit News - - News - BY BETH LE­BLANC The Detroit News

State of­fi­cials and the De­part­ment of De­fense re­main dead­locked over whether the Air Force should ac­cept more re­spon­si­bil­ity for clean­ing up and pay­ing for the chem­i­cal con­tam­i­na­tion in Os­coda af­ter nearly a year in dis­pute res­o­lu­tion.

The on­go­ing dis­agree­ment be­tween the Michi­gan De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity and fed­eral of­fi­cials was high­lighted dur­ing last Fri­day's round ta­ble dis­cus­sion with the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency in

Kala­ma­zoo, where the De­part­ment of De­fense was no­tably ab­sent.

The head of

Sny­der’s PFAS task force, Carol Isaacs, said there was “dis­cord” with the de­part­ment. A July let­ter from Gov. Rick Sny­der to Sec­re­tary of De­fense James Mattis echoed the sen­ti­ment.

“…the DOD re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge its re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sig­nif­i­cant off-site con­tam­i­na­tion,” Sny­der wrote. “This, in turn re­sults in need­less cost for the State of Michi­gan to ad­dress the source for con­tam­i­na­tion and an un­war­ranted de­lay in re­me­di­a­tion ef­forts.”

The dis­pute is over “the scope and ex­tent” of the PFAS con­tam­i­na­tion that can be at­trib­uted to Air Force ac­tiv­i­ties at the former Wurt­smith Air Force Base, where per­son­nel used PFAS-con­tain­ing fire­fight­ing foam for train­ing, said Ari Adler, a spokesman for Sny­der.

The DEQ is fin­ish­ing test­ing of ground­wa­ter plumes and ad­di­tional sam­ples to pro­vide the in­for­ma­tion needed to link the con­tam­i­nated ground­wa­ter to the air force base, Adler said.

The toxic class of chem­i­cals is linked to some health ef­fects, in­clud­ing can­cer and im­mune sys­tem prob­lems. The chem­i­cal was widely used in Te­flon, Scotch­gard and fire­fight­ing foam and has been found at high lev­els at more than 30 sites through­out Michi­gan.

Michi­gan has five former or ac­tive mil­i­tary sites af­fected by PFAS con­tam­i­na­tion: the Alpena Com­bat Readi­ness Train­ing Cen­ter, the former Es­can­aba De­fense Fuel Sup­port Points, Camp Grayling, the former K.I. Sawyer Air

Force Base near Mar­quette, and the former Wurt­smith Air Force Base. Adler noted that though com­mit­ments for full re­me­di­a­tion at Wurt­smith are slow in com­ing, Army bases around Michi­gan where con­tam­i­na­tion has been iden­ti­fied have been more co­op­er­a­tive.

“The Air Force re­fuses to treat” ar­eas where PFAS-con­tain­ing foam mi­grated off­site, cre­at­ing se­condary sources of the chem­i­cal, said Os­coda Town­ship Su­per­vi­sor Aaron Weed said. The Air Force also used the foam to help put out for­est fires in the area but re­fuses to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for those sites, Weed said.

The town­ship's fire de­part­ments never used the fire­fight­ing foam, he said.

The Air Force has in­stalled two gran­u­lar ac­ti­vated car­bon fil­tra­tion units in the area, Weed said, but "the plume is so huge that what that sys­tem is fil­ter­ing is just a tiny bit of that con­tam­i­na­tion.”

“What’s leach­ing out of these plumes is go­ing di­rectly into the sur­face wa­ters and then in 24 hours it’s in Lake Huron,” said Weed, who also faulted the state for fail­ing to take a tougher reg­u­la­tory stance in years past.

The U.S. Air Force did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. But in Septem­ber, the De­fense De­part­ment's Mau­reen Sul­li­van tes­ti­fied be­fore a U.S. House sub­com­mit­tee that the de­part­ment had iden­ti­fied 401 ac­tive and former bases where a PFOS or PFOA re­lease had oc­curred.

The de­part­ment pri­or­i­tized those site based on a "worst first" process and was still de­ter­min­ing cleanup costs, Sul­li­van said.

Since the con­tam­i­nant was con­firmed at Wurt­smith in 2010, the chem­i­cal has trav­eled through ground and sur­face wa­ter, Clark Marsh, the AuSable River and is now threat­en­ing Lake Huron.

In 2017, foam con­tain­ing sky high con­cen­tra­tions of PFAS was found by sum­mer camp stu­dents on Lake Van Et­ten near the base, and the foam also has been found on the shores of Lake Huron, Weed said.

The con­tam­i­na­tion has af­fected drink­ing wa­ter in three res­i­den­tial wells, pre­vented res­i­dents from eat­ing fish from Clark Marsh and made it nearly im­pos­si­ble to trans­fer the former mil­i­tary prop­erty to other par­ties for redevelopment, Sny­der told Mattis in his July 24 let­ter.

Sny­der urged Mattis to com­mit to a full re­me­di­a­tion of con­tam­i­na­tion at Wurt­smith, a com­mit­ment that goes be­yond years­long in­ves­ti­ga­tions, bot­tled wa­ter and some wa­ter hookups.

“While help­ful in the short term, the re­sult­ing ef­fect is a fail­ure to re­me­di­ate the con­tam­i­nant in the en­vi­ron­ment, leav­ing the sit­u­a­tion to per­pet­u­ate,” Sny­der wrote.

Sny­der ar­gued the de­part­ment was not tak­ing full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the legacy of con­tam­i­na­tion at the site, he noted that the De­part­ment of De­fense had not yet sought an ap­pro­pri­a­tion for Wurt­smith and blamed de­lays on the de­part­ment’s use of the Com­pre­hen­sive En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­sponse, Com­pen­sa­tion and Li­a­bil­ity Act of 1990, a con­tam­i­na­tion iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and cleanup process also called Su­per­fund.

Sny­der ar­gued for a “rea­son­able limit” on the de­part­ment’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the is­sue, in­stead of the years-long process cur­rently un­der­way

“PFAS con­tam­i­na­tion doesn’t fol­low a process,” Adler said Wed­nes­day. “It con­tin­ues mov­ing whether the gov­ern­ment de­cides to act on it or not.”


The former Wurt­smith Air Force Base in Os­coda Town­ship. The base closed in 1993 but ques­tions re­main about con­tam­i­na­tion at the site.



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