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Michigan official: DNR should reject Camp Grayling expansion amid PFAS woes

sign for Camp Grayling
The National Guard is seeking permission to double its footprint at Camp Grayling to better train for modern cyber, electronic and space warfare. (Photo courtesy of Michigan National Guard)
  • A state environmental official says state should nix Camp Grayling expansion unless the National Guard does more to fix PFAS 
  • The Guard wants access to an additional 162,000 acres of state land for military training
  • The proposal has sparked outcry from nearby residents, who fear environmental impacts and nuisance

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources should reject the Michigan Army National Guard’s proposed Camp Grayling expansion until and unless the military branch gets more serious about addressing PFAS contamination at the base.

That’s the conclusion of a strongly-worded letter sent to Guard officials in late December by a district supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division in Gaylord. 

It comes as the Guard seeks to double its footprint at Camp Grayling by leasing 162,000 acres of nearby state land. Guard officials say they need the extra space to train for modern cyber, electronic and space warfare. The DNR is reviewing the proposal.


In a Dec. 22 letter to Bonnie Packer, the acting PFAS program manager for the Army National Guard’s Cleanup and Restoration Branch, and a host of other military and state contacts, EGLE supervisor Randall Rothe wrote that DNR officials should reject the expansion of Camp Grayling based on the Guard’s “inability to take timely action to investigate, mitigate, and remediate significant areas of contamination at Camp Grayling.”

The letter outlines a litany of shortcomings in the Guard’s PFAS response over the past five years, from minimizing “known impacts” to foot-dragging on investigating and cleaning up contaminated drinking and wastewater and refusing to extend public drinking water to areas with contaminated wells. The military’s refusal to better study PFAS impacts near the base has forced the state to step in with its own investigations at “an enormous expense to the state of Michigan,” Rothe wrote.

The letter came a day after Rothe notified the Guard in a separate letter that reports it had submitted pertaining to its PFAS inspections at Camp Grayling were insufficient. 

“Staff has spent an inordinate amount of time reviewing, researching and responding to the inadequacies of work performed/proposed,” Rothe wrote, “most of which should have been included in the original submittals (by the military).”

Guard officials have touted the proposed expansion as a necessary change that would better prepare troops for modern combat while bringing new commerce to the Grayling area. They have vowed to limit training in the expansion zone to only low-impact activities, while maintaining a 1,500 foot buffer around waterways.

But many area environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, residents and local officials oppose the proposal, citing fears of environmental impacts, diminished property values and lower quality of life for nearby residents.

Expansion opponents have repeatedly cited concerns about the Guard’s track record on PFAS, arguing that a military branch responsible for widespread contamination of Michigan’s beloved Up North land and water shouldn’t be trusted with access to more land.

“They’re not good stewards of what they already have,” said Joe Hemming, president of the Anglers of the Au Sable, an outdoor conservation group. 

Hemming called the Guard’s resistance to deeper investigation of Camp Grayling’s PFAS evidence of “a lack of good faith” by the military branch. He said he worried that the Guard’s alleged failure to fully investigate PFAS impacts in the Au Sable may be allowing contamination to spread.

“There’s a fear that there may be a big problem here that we don’t know about,” Hemming said, “and they’re not gathering the data to tell us.”

Packer, the Guard PFAS cleanup manager, acknowledged that the Guard had received Rothe’s letter but told Bridge Monday she was not authorized to comment on it.

Col. Scott Meyers, commander of the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, told Bridge late Monday he is working to learn more about the letter. He said “we’re collaborating with all of our staff and partners to protect the environment to ensure we get as fast and responsive as possible” to address  PFAS problems on the base.

Rothe and other officials with DNR and EGLE did not respond to calls and emails Monday, which is a state and federal government holiday. It wasn’t immediately clear from the letter whether Rothe’s comments represent EGLE’s institutional stance on the expansion proposal, or just one official’s opinion. 

[Update: In a statement Tuesday, EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid said that while the agency has “significant concerns” about the Guard’s PFAS response at Camp Grayling, Rothe’s letter does not represent EGLE’s formal agency stance on the expansion. “Michigan EGLE has no regulatory authority over the proposed expansion and will not make a formal agency recommendation on that matter,” McDiarmid said.] 

The military first discovered PFAS contamination in 2016 at the base, where soldiers for decades used PFAS-containing firefighting foam during training exercises and to suppress fire and dust. Since then, military and state officials have been working to track its spread through groundwater and into nearby waterways including Lake Margrethe. 

EGLE sent a violation notice to the Guard in July for allegedly discharging PFOS-contaminated stormwater into the lake.

In the Dec. 22 letter, Rothe wrote that although EGLE has “proven extensively” that PFAS is entering the lake from contaminated groundwater, resulting in buildup of PFAS-laden foam on the lake’s surface, “not one foam sample has been collected” by the Army National Guard.  Rothe also panned the Guard’s investigations into whether contaminated groundwater is seeping into the Au Sable River, writing that far more sampling is needed.

Chuck Spencer, president of the Lake Margrethe Property Owners Association, said his group agrees that the military is not addressing the contamination fast enough. It’s a source of frustration and fear for him and his neighbors. Spencer said some have had to install filters or dig new wells in response to contaminated groundwater, while others live in fear that the plume could spread to their home next.

“Every day I look out at our lake when there is open water, and I see the white foam,” Spencer said. “That is not normal or natural. It is the result of PFAS contamination.”

The association has not taken a stance on the proposed Camp Grayling expansion, he said, and “in all fairness, (the Guard) do a lot to help our organization,” such as helping combat invasive plants in the lake. 

Speaking for himself, Spencer said he objects to the expansion. Beyond his concerns about the guard’s PFAS track record, he said, “I’m just not in immediate support of taking that much public land from the citizens of Michigan.”

Meyers called the PFAS issues and the expansion proposal “two completely separate issues.” He noted that the Guard no longer trains with “any of those chemicals” and the training activities in the proposed expansion zone would include no activities involving PFAS.

DNR spokesperson Ed Golder told Bridge in December that the agency is still evaluating the proposal. If DNR leadership agrees to move forward, the DNR and military will launch review processes that could culminate in a decision late this year.

The proposed Camp Grayling expansion is one of two contentious military expansion efforts in the area. Public outcry over an Air National Guard proposal to expand its airspace above the northern Lower Peninsula, Thumb and Lake Huron prompted the Guard last month to extend the public comment period on the airspace proposal.

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