Opinion | PFAS has poisoned my town. Government needs to step up and help

Katherine Thompson

Katherine L. Thompson of Oscoda is a senior sociology student at the University of Michigan.

Built in the 1920s, the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda became an official part of the U.S. Air Force in 1955. It was a large area with a 2-mile-long runway. After disbandment, the military parties that inhabited Oscoda left. This put the town in a tough situation financially as it relied heavily on the military families for economic and business purposes. The town began to die. 

Iosco County was hit hard by the Great Recession, and unemployment was high. My classmates often talked about their parents getting laid off and would come to school dirty. Unemployment was so common that to me, a naive middle-schooler, it didn’t seem unusual. Hit after hit, it seemed Oscoda would never recover. 

I don’t remember when we learned that we could no longer eat the fish we caught in the river and lakes. They said that it was the local fish that were the problem, not the fish that migrated or were imported. Who “they” were was never clear to me as a child, just that I could not eat the prized fish I worked hard to catch on weekends with my father. We knew that the water in the river and manmade lakes was bad, but we just dealt with it and continued to live our small town lifestyle. It seemed simple enough to implement a catch and release method for the locals, but since the Air Force’s closing, Oscoda has relied heavily on tourism, like our beautiful beaches and boating opportunities. Explaining to the tourists why they could not eat the fish they caught on their summer weekend excursions, but still insist that they continue to travel here to maintain business in the town, was becoming more difficult. 

Recently, new regulations have emerged. People in a certain area of town should drink only filtered water or buy it bottled because it is unsafe for consumption. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, was in the water supply. PFAS is a manmade chemical that is found in many industrial surfactants in chemical processes and as a material feedstock. In our case, it was used largely through the Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) that the military used to stop petroleum fires during the Air Force’s use of the base. Though knowledge of the groundwater and soil contamination has been known since the late 1970s, little is known about the specific chemicals that currently impact the overall quality of the water today. 

The side effects and health risks to residents are largely unknown. There is, however, a known link between ingesting PFAS chemicals and “lowering a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, increasing the chance of high blood pressure in pregnant women, increasing the chance of thyroid disease, increasing cholesterol levels, changing immune response, and increasing the chance of cancer, especially kidney and testicular cancers” and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has known about this contamination since at least 2010.

It wasn’t until I started working at one of the local grocery stores that I realized the hassle other families were having, buying filters for their water and buying drinking water with their groceries. The more people came to buy water and the more I saw the families walk or car-share to buy groceries, the more I recalled how many of my fellow classmates and I were on free and reduced lunch (69.98 percent in the 2018-19 school year). We were young, we were poor, and now we had to buy our drinking water, too. Soon, more tests were on the horizon. On Nov. 13, 2018, two days before hunting season, a new study on the water was released: a “Do Not Eat” deer advisory for the 5 miles surrounding Clark’s Marsh was now in effect. I was outraged. Venison is a staple in the diet of a hunting family. When I was in high school, my father and I calculated that with our combined hunting successes, venison contributed approximately a third of our annual protein intake for our family of four. Hunting is not only a way of life in northern Michigan, but a dietary lifestyle that many families depend on. It is much cheaper than buying beef or chicken at the supermarket. I knew that residents were going to ignore the new regulations, not because it was inconvenient, but because they literally couldn’t afford not to, risking the health of themselves and their families. 

The people of Oscoda take great pride in our beautiful shoreline, inland lakes and rivers; Oscoda has even been branded as having “the best beach in Michigan.” I find it ironic that in a place with so much water, we don’t have a basic human right to be able to drink it. 

My hometown is ravaged by unemployment, dependent on meager revenue from a modest tourism industry, and recoiling from emerging reports of toxic water that may have poisoned our residents for decades. Oscoda, Michigan, is a forgotten town whose history and present-day struggles have largely been ignored. Change needs to happen in our town or else I dread what will happen to us. I implore you, reader, to seek action and empathize. Our community is struggling to sustain ourselves financially and simply cannot do this on our own. We need government action, specifically military accountability, so that the harm that was done to our environment can be mended and residents can be educated about what they’ve ingested and how to best prepare for their future. We need research to know what to expect of our children’s health as they age. I ask for recognition of the severity of Oscoda’s toxicity and the assistance we so desperately need.

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Mike Watza
Fri, 01/10/2020 - 2:52am

With regard to the current State of the state of Michigan as portrayed in these several environmental opeds:

Jonathan Warshay
Fri, 01/10/2020 - 8:27am

The federal government caused this disaster and is responsible for remediating the area and for treating the residents for conditions resulting from the contamination. Ms. Thompson's story is powerful and she would be an excellent witness before any committee or agency investigation.

K Hogan
Fri, 01/10/2020 - 10:17am

My Grandfather built a house in Oscoda and I spent most of my summers there as a child. How dare the government not clean up after themselves upon their exit from the area! This is appalling!

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 9:23am

So sad. Such a beautiful area with such an abundance of lakes and rivers. Of course the federal government should address their mess. But Oscoda does not have the pull of big cities or big companies so the feds get away with shirking their responsibilities.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 2:17pm

Well written and noteworthy story. I wish our elected officials were more aware of and/or cared more about our rivers, lakes, and air. Michigan is a beautiful place. It’s a shame about PFAs and other pollutants. I am proud of you, Katherine, for shedding light on this issue.