Read the full article by Paul Egan
“LANSING – The Michigan Attorney General’s Office dragged its feet on putting legal muscle behind state claims that the U.S. Air Force is liable for chemical contamination of waters around a former military base in northern Michigan, according to an attorney who owns nearby property.
Anthony Spaniola’s allegations — in part corroborated by minutes of meetings and other records — relate to contamination from PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances used in firefighting foam and other substances) that is spreading from contaminated groundwater beneath the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda Township into Van Etten Lake and other adjacent bodies of water…
The Air Force, which closed the Wurtsmith base in 1993, has been working to clean up contamination on the former base and has also provided bottled water and/or reverse osmosis filtration systems to the few area residents whose wells contain PFAS compounds above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion.
But there was a dispute — until recently — about whether the Air Force is liable under state law for plumes of groundwater contamination entering adjacent Van Etten Lake, Van Etten Creek and the Au Sable River, which pours into Lake Huron.
Spaniola, a Troy attorney and Democratic donor who owns a family cottage across the lake from the former base and has been a leader of residents’ efforts to get the Air Force to act, said the applicability of state law to the surface water contamination is straightforward under Michigan’s administrative rules and Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.
But the state, he said, lost more than nine months of precious time — from late April 2017 to early February of this year — that could have been spent pushing the Air Force to stop the pollution because a requested letter detailing the applicability of the statute and related rules got held up in the Attorney General’s Office.
It’s not clear what role, if any, Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee for governor in Tuesday’s election, had in the apparent delay. But Schuette is ultimately responsible for the operation of his office and was similarly accused of being slow to act on the Flint drinking water crisis — a charge he denies. In that case, Schuette’s office opened an investigation in mid-January 2016, about four months after Sheldon Neeley, a Democratic state representative from Flint, asked him to do so. Since then, Schuette’s office has brought criminal charges against 15 current or former state and city employees and Schuette has touted his role in bringing justice to Flint residents.
In the case of the growing PFAS crisis, ‘there has never been any foot dragging,’ said Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely. But she refused to disclose what advice the Attorney General’s Office gave the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality about Air Force liability for PFAS contamination of waters around the former base, or when that advice was given. Bitely cited attorney-client privilege, which can exist between the Attorney General’s Office and state agencies.
Minutes of meetings of the Base Realignment and Closure Cleanup Team show Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) officials raised the issue of requiring the Air Force to investigate the contamination of nearby waters at an April 25, 2017, meeting.
The Air Force asked that the request be put in writing, but records show the requested DEQ letter was not sent until Feb. 8 of this year.
In between, there is a reference in the minutes to the requested letter being ‘in the Attorney General’s Office’ on Sept. 28.
On Oct. 17, the DEQ’s remediation and redevelopment coordinator for Oscoda, Robert Delaney, told Spaniola in an email that ‘the Air Force requested an analysis from the State of Michigan, Attorney General’s Office’ of their legal responsibility to ‘remediate … plumes that are discharging to surface water.’ In the meantime, ‘we will continue to work with the Air Force to obtain compliance,’ Delaney said.
And at an open house held about the PFAS issue at an Oscoda church on Dec. 6, Benjamin ‘Matt’ Marrs, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s base environmental coordinator for the Wurtsmith project, told Spaniola the Air Force was ‘still waiting on the letter from the Attorney General’s Office,’ Spaniola said.
It wasn’t until Feb. 8 of this year that the DEQ wrote the Air Force a letter, copied to officials in the Attorney General’s Office, that, ‘as requested,’ cited specific statutes and regulations that make the Air Force liable for investigating and addressing the impact of contaminated groundwater moving from the base into adjacent waters, along with copies of nearly 100 pages of legislation.
Even after that, WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids reported on Feb. 20 that Air Force consultant Paul Rekowski said at a recently held community meeting that ‘the Air Force doesn’t see an applicable law that applies to that foam or to that surface water.’
Then, in a Feb. 26 letter to Spaniola, Marrs confirmed that the Air Force accepts the applicability of state law to contamination of waters adjacent to the base. That was after Spaniola, in a Feb. 20 email to Marrs, pointed to the relevant sections of state law, as well as a March 2017 letter to the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency in which a top Air Force official appeared to concede the applicability of that law.”