Read the full article by Jenny Haglund (Iosco County News-Herald)

“OSCODA – When it was announced in February that the Air Force (AF) is allocating $13.5 million toward per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) remediation at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base (WAFB) in Oscoda, many assumed this would be used to help clean up the contamination and stop its continued spread.

‘Oscoda residents and families have been waiting far too long for the Air Force to act more urgently,’ Congressman Dan Kildee said at the time. ‘I am happy to see the Department of Defense [DoD] finally provide funding to clean up PFAS at Wurtsmith, but still more funding is needed to protect Oscoda residents from PFAS leaching into the drinking water.’

However, during the April 15 Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meeting – held online because of restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic – it was learned that the AF plans to use the funds for more research and studies; not on direct cleanup.

David Gibson of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC) – who took over as project manager and RAB co-chair, following the retirement of Matt Marrs – estimates that it could be another four years before any additional remediation infrastructure is installed.

But a number of RAB meeting participants, including Van Etten Lake (VEL) property owner Anthony Spaniola, argued that more than 10 years of studies and investigations have already been carried out in the community, enough data has been collected and it is time to clean up the PFAS contaminating area water bodies.

He pointed to the number of advisories which have been issued by public health officials – all of which have been reported on previously in this publication – including the Do Not Eat advisory for fish in Clark’s Marsh, which has been in place since 2012; a Do Not Eat advisory for deer and other wildlife in the marsh; and an advisory to avoid the foam in local water bodies, as these may all contain high levels of PFAS.

Gibson maintained that the money from Congress was allocated to conduct the base-wide remedial investigation (RI) phase at WAFB, which focuses on defining the nature and extent of contamination and assessing risk to human health and the environment. He also said that it may be possible to do some interim remedial actions during the RI, which he summarized in greater detail later in the meeting.

AF officials say the RI results will provide the necessary information to make decisions on further remedial actions, including possible interim steps, as necessary to limit PFAS migration and address unacceptable risks.

‘When Congress pushed this through, the entire debate was on getting cleanup done,’ said Kildee of the $13.5 million allocation, during the public comment period.

‘The recently submitted ESI [expanded site inspection] calls for additional studies and more data,’ he added. ‘And I understand there is always going to be a need to gather more information; however, it is clear under the law that interim measures are called for – not just allowable – but called for when there is an imminent, substantial endangerment to public health or the environment. And that doesn’t have to be a narrow definition. We know that there is substantial endangerment.’

Kildee also cited the multiple health advisories, noting that these impacted areas are where people live, swim, fish and recreate.

As for the legislation, he said it was intended that an aggressive approach be taken when there is an endangerment to public health or the environment. The intention of the law is that there would be interim measures taken to mitigate against those threats. Congress has appropriated the money to clean up the danger, and that needs to be the focus, he stressed.

Kildee said that, according to Secretary of the AF Barbara Barrett, the money earmarked for WAFB can be used to fund construction or expansion of additional treatment systems if needed.

He asked the AF to use the majority of the money that Congress intended to be used for mitigation efforts, for those said purposes. 

Prior to delving into the main topics on the meeting agenda, time was allowed for stakeholder updates and comments. Listeners heard from RAB Co-Chair Arnie Leriche, who said the board wanted to have a discussion about the AF recognizing interim mitigation actions before the RI process.

He said that human health risk assessments have been carried out at other contaminated military sites but this has not moved forward at WAFB, despite Do Not Eat advisories being in place for eight years.

RAB member and Oscoda Township Trustee Timothy Cummings said Leriche’s comments are quite important and he wants to make sure this isn’t lost, as the AF presentation that evening was going to include mention of the fact that the RI won’t be complete until 2022.

‘We need interim action. We need interim solutions,’ he said. ‘We need to find out whether or not EGLE [Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy] – who mentioned that they’re going to call for interim actions – is actually going to press for them any kind of urgency.’

Also speaking was District Health Department No. 2 and No. 4 Health Officer, Denise Bryan, who referred to the PFAS in and around Oscoda as an insidious, chronic health problem.

She mentioned how the coronavirus pandemic has reminded the world of the value and importance of health, and how people’s whole existences and normal routines have been interrupted to save lives and choose health over economics. But there has been a united approach with the pandemic, and she encouraged expeditiously continuing to unite against the PFAS problem in this way, as well.

‘I would like to see that same science and the epidemiology applied to this case,’ she said.

‘I think we cannot wait for actions for 2022,’ Bryan continued, expressing her disappointment with the lack of interim action by the DoD.

RAB member and Need Our Water (NOW) Co-Lead Cathy Wusterbarth also spoke, sharing a priority statement on behalf of NOW. The group says it is their top priority to have the AF stop the flow of Wurtsmith PFAS contamination into all Oscoda area surface waters by no later than 2023, including remediation with the utmost speed and urgency of the PFAS plumes impacting VEL.

‘Tonight, we’re going to hear from the U.S. Air Force about a report that will tell us that their findings do not warrant immediate action for cleanup,’ she said. ‘As a reminder, these PFAS chemicals are bioaccumulating in our blood and are linked with cancer, hormone disruption, liver damage and infertility’…”