Read the full article by Pat Rizzuto (Bloomberg Law)

“Two Pentagon projects to prevent more PFAS from flowing into a Michigan lake are being flagged by local residents as a hopeful sign of a new top-level commitment to avoid exacerbating existing problems.

The Air Force will install two treatment systems to stop the flow of groundwater contaminated with PFAS into Van Etten Lake, which is near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich., the Pentagon announced Aug. 17.

The two projects will make progress in addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), but ‘we also recognize there is still more work to do,’ Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante said in a statement.

Documents Pentagon officials circulated in 2001 show they knew then about PFAS contamination from Wurtsmith’s 5,223-acre site due to research conducted by two Oregon State University scientists. The base closed in 1993.

LaPlante’s announcement combined with other recent Department of Defense actions have made community activist Tony Spaniola optimistic that PFAS contamination is finally being taken more seriously by the military’s top brass.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever said a positive thing about them. That’s how bad it’s been,’ said Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, on Tuesday.

Congressional Pressure

Retired service men and women live in the area, ‘people who honor the military,’ he said. Yet since 2012, when area residents first learned of the PFAS contamination, the view of DoD has shifted ‘from one of high esteem to outright hostility.’

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have chastised the Pentagon. After learning in 2020 that the Air Force planned to spend $13.5 million for research at Wurtsmith rather than remediation, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) wrote the Air Force secretary describing its cleanup resistance as ‘incredibly frustrating and unacceptable.’

‘We’ve done enough testing,’ Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) told US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall during an April hearing this year. ‘Will the Air Force commit to stop the flow of PFAS into public waterways?’

PFAS Foam and Kids

The recently announced lake protection efforts are two of four interim remedial actions that Need Our Water (NOW), a community group in Oscoda, Mich., sought in February in a letter to Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) seeking her assistance.

The two will help protect young people swimming in Van Etten Lake while attending a camp run by the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, said Spaniola.

The region, which is near Lake Huron, is a popular summertime retreat, he said.

Yet ‘Avoid Foam’ signs dot the state’s lakesides because waterborne PFAS generate a bright white sudsy foam that looks like bubble bath, Spaniola said.

‘It’s very hard to get a kid to stop playing with the foam,’ he said. ‘They make mustaches and all sorts of stuff. It’s something kids are drawn to.’

Yet ‘some studies in people have found that repeated high PFAS exposure is linked to liver damage and thyroid disease, among other health effects,’ Michigan’s PFAS Action Response Team said in a warning about foam earlier this year.

Levels of just two PFAS—PFOA and PFOS—have measured up to 242,430 parts per trillion, according to data from the state’s PFAS team.

Other local reminders of the chemicals include state warnings that began more than 10 years ago to stop eating locally caught fish, stop drinking well water, and stop eating venison due to PFAS contamination, Spaniola said.

Next Steps

Still, he’s hopeful the Defense Department is taking the issue more seriously. More senior Pentagon officials have flown to Wurtsmith in recent months to address remediation, he said.

Local residents are being invited to help with cleanup planning efforts, and DoD released in July both a statement and a policy directive urging interim actions to prevent exacerbating problems, Spaniola said.

The Air Force aims to award a contract in late January 2024, begin construction in late November 2024, and have the two treatment systems operating by October 2025, a spokesperson said on Tuesday.

The department already has spent $56.1 million investigating and responding to PFAS at Wurtsmith, according to information it provided. The Air Force is on track to spend an additional $6.4 million by the end of October 2023, the spokesperson said.”