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As Michigan makes PFAS strides, Oscoda residents say Air Force is stalling

Michigan’s new, stricter drinking water standards for the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS have been lauded as among the toughest in the nation and as good news for residents who live near contaminated sites that now will require cleanup.

But for residents of Oscoda Township, where the federal government’s activities at a former air force base have contaminated area groundwater, surface water, and even the flesh of fish and wildlife, the celebration over the stronger standards is tempered by frustration.

A decade since scientists first discovered contamination caused by past firefighting activities at now-defunct Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan’s first known PFAS site, Air Force officials say they will not commit to meeting the state’s tougher cleanup standards. And in the meantime, residents say, the military branch is using federal money intended for PFAS cleanup to instead conduct more studies of a well-documented problem.

Their frustration comes as they endure another summer of dodging PFAS-laden foam when they swim in area lakes, heeding state health advisories against eating fish and game from a local marsh, and breaking disappointing news to vacationing children who want to play in the white, sticky foam along the Au Sable River.

“They want to put it on like shaving cream,” said Cathy Wusterbarth, an Oscoda resident who leads the group Need Our Water. “If you’re not from around here, you don’t know.”

Oscoda’s experience highlights an ongoing headache in Michigan’s effort to address PFAS contamination: Without federal cooperation, the state’s efforts could have limited effect at Wurtsmith and other U.S. defense sites where testing has revealed contamination.

Air Force officials responsible for cleaning up the pollution from Wurtsmith, one of 10 military sites on Michigan’s PFAS cleanup list, have claimed the site is exempt from state environmental regulations although officials may voluntarily comply when they finally craft a cleanup plan. 

“The Department of Defense is evaluating [cleanup standards], and we take our lead from what the Department of Defense says,” said Stephen TerMaath, who leads the Air Force division in charge of Wurtsmith cleanup.

The Air Force’s decline to commit to Michigan’s standards is among a litany of frustrations Oscoda residents say they have with the military officials working on the cleanup at the former base, which operated for 70 years before closing in 1993. They complain officials have been opaque about their plans and slow to take interim steps to stop contamination from spreading while residents await a comprehensive cleanup plan that is still years away. 

“Their strategy is avoidance and delay,” said Wusterbarth. “It always has been.”

Michigan aims higher

Exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance, or PFAS compounds, often found at former tannery sites, metal plating facilities, military bases, airports and places where PFAS-containing firefighting foam has been used, has been linked to cancer, thyroid issues and other health conditions.

Michigan’s new standards are far stricter and more comprehensive than the federal government’s nonbinding “health advisory levels,” which warn against drinking water with concentrations above 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA, two of the thousands of PFAS compounds.

The new state standards set hard limits of 8 ppt for PFOA and 16 parts per trillion for PFOS in public drinking water systems, and also establish limits for five other PFAS compounds.

The new rules also lower the cleanup threshold for contaminated groundwater, from 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA to 8 parts per trillion for PFOA and 16 parts per trillion for PFOS. 

That lower cleanup threshold, designed to give the state greater ability to hold polluters accountable for causing PFAS contamination, adds 38 new sites to Michigan’s list of contaminated sites under investigation, for a total of 138 including Wurtsmith.

In a conference call with reporters, Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy, said the goal at those sites is to “go upstream,” eliminating PFAS at the source so it stops seeping into drinking water supplies.

But Air Force officials already have said they don’t believe state water pollution rules apply to the contamination stemming from Wurtsmith, where they call the shots on cleanup efforts they estimate will cost nearly $133 million.

When state environmental regulators in 2018 ordered the Air Force to comply with a regulation that limits PFAS entering surface water bodies, Air Force officials countered that “sovereign immunity” — the idea that the federal government can’t be sued without its consent — exempts them from the regulation.

Steve Sliver, executive director of the state interagency task force known as the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, said state regulators intend to keep pushing for Michigan’s new standards to serve as the benchmark for “every PFOS remediation across the state,” including Wurtsmith.  

But if state officials expect the Air Force to comply with Michigan’s standards without a fight, “they’re dreaming,” said Tony Spaniola, a Troy attorney and Need Our Water leader who owns a home in Oscoda. 

The new standards “are a good thing for municipalities and for other cleanups around the state,” Spaniola said, “but the [Department of Defense] is just not going to do it.”

A tough road for legislative solutions

As the Air Force remains noncommittal, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, said she hopes to push through a federal proposal that would require the Air Force to adhere to Michigan’s standards at Wurtsmith and other contaminated sites. 

Slotkin sponsored an amendment in this year’s House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which establishes the federal defense department budget, that would require the military to meet “the strictest available standard” when cleaning up PFOS and PFOA contamination at defense facilities. She said the amendment is meant to give state standards “teeth,” given the federal government’s slowness to act on calls for an enforceable national standard.

“I can’t wait for [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] to decide that there’s a federal standard they’re going to adhere to,” Slotkin said. “This is sort of a next best option.”

But even Slotkin, who has found past success using the defense budget as an avenue for PFAS regulation and prides herself on being a “pragmatist” who aims to sponsor legislation with enough bipartisan support to become law, admitted the amendment faces an uphill battle to passage.

It would have to pass the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate and get the signature of President Trump, who last year threatened to veto PFAS cleanup legislation championed by Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, if it reached his desk. 

For now, Air Force officials say they’re years away from deciding upon a cleanup threshold at Wurtsmith. But their past actions leave residents worried that without an explicit legal requirement that the Air Force meet Michigan’s standards, the Air Force will aim lower. 

Studies vs. action 

While Oscoda residents press the Air Force to commit to a stringent cleanup plan, they say they remain frustrated with continued “foot-dragging” on interim measures to stop the spread of PFAS contamination from Wurtsmith.

The Air Force operates filtration systems to treat four separate plumes of contaminated groundwater in hopes of slowing their spread. State officials and local residents have pushed for more, and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, said federal money he helped secure for the PFAS response at Wurtsmith and other military sites was supposed to pay for it. 

Instead, the Air Force plans to spend the bulk of the $13.5 million appropriation on studies. Just $5.5 million will go toward cleaning contaminated groundwater.

Kildee has joined the residents in a public pressure campaign, calling upon the Air Force to use “a majority” of the funds on interim cleanup. He has accused the Air Force of defying the will of Congress by refusing to do so.

“I know a little bit about congressional intent,” he said, “because I helped formulate the intent.”

Residents say they are particularly concerned about a plume of polluted groundwater that is seeping into Van Etten Lake, which runs alongside the former air base, prompting state health authorities to warn against coming into contact with contaminated foam there. 

After first planning to spend all of the $13.5 million on studies, the Air Force said last month that it will use a portion to expand groundwater treatment at a former fire training area that is contaminating nearby Clark’s Marsh. TerMaath told Bridge the money will also pay for new wells to “cut off” a plume near Air Force Beach on Van Etten Lake.

But Air Force officials have been hazy on specifics of their plans. State regulators have given them a Sept. 30 deadline to provide more details.

TerMaath said the new filtration systems should be operational by early 2022. He said Air Force officials are moving as quickly as they can, and using most of the federal money on studies will help them arrive faster at a final cleanup plan. 

Even so, that plan is still years away. Remedial investigation that will allow the Air Force to begin a likely yearslong process to develop a cleanup plan is slated for completion in late 2022.

TerMaath said he understands residents’ concerns about the drawn-out timeline, but “there’s no intent on our part to stonewall or delay the process.”

Oscoda residents remain unconvinced. 

“They’ve had enough information for years,” said Arnie Leriche, a member and former co-chair of the citizen advisory board for the Wurtsmith cleanup. “They just don’t want to act on it.”

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