After Contaminating the Water Supply Near a Base, Air Force Refuses to Follow Michigan Law

by | April 26, 2017

By Keith Matheny

Oscoda area residents whose wells are affected by groundwater contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base have been urged by state and local public health officials to seek an alternative water supply. And a new Michigan law that took effect in January would make the U.S. Air Force responsible for covering the cost of those alternative water supplies.

But Air Force officials will not comply with the new law, Public Act 545, said Paul Carroll, the Air Force's environmental coordinator for Wurtsmith, at a public forum on the contamination issue in Oscoda on Tuesday.

"The Air Force can't comply with that law, because it is discriminatory," he said.

That's because of it "not applying to all citizens of the state," only the Air Force, Carroll said.

That position has raised the ire of the state senator who wrote the legislation, as well as the health officer at the district health department serving Oscoda.

Air Force officials, at a town hall meeting in Oscoda last year, assured state Sen. Jim Stamas and gathered residents that they would cover the costs of an alternative water supply for residents if state law were changed to require it.

"They're obviously retracting their statement and not living up to their obligation," said Stamas, R-Midland.

"This law was only put in place to hold the state and federal government to the same standard that the public is already held to."

Stamas said he will ask State Attorney General Bill Schuette to get involved over the Air Force's refusal to comply with the law.

Carroll qualified the Air Force's statements from last year's meeting.

"It's my understanding that the Air Force said if there was a law or regulation that was applicable, that we would have to follow it," he said.

At issue are perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, found in fire-fighting foam that was used on the Wurtsmith base for many years. The base closed in 1993 after more than 70 years of operation.

In 2012, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a "do not eat" fish advisory for all fish caught from Clark's Marsh and for resident fish in the lower Au Sable River, south of the former base, after laboratory analysis showed unsafe levels of PFCs in the fish.

DEQ surveys of residential wells in the area in 2016 then showed elevated levels of the compounds -- but not at levels exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. As a precautionary measure, however, the state and local district health department recommended residents with affected wells begin using alternative water supplies.

The state last year appropriated $1 million to fund switching affected well-users to the municipal water supply piped in from Lake Huron, and other short-term alternative water for affected homes. But switching all those with contaminated wells could take months -- particularly as the contamination zone expands.

And that's where the state's dispute with the Air Force arises. The Air Force's position is to only provide an alternative water source to those with wells exceeding the EPA advisory level. So far, that's been only two homes -- including one just recently found across from the local high school on East River Road.  The groundwater pollution there, DEQ officials believe, may have stemmed from base firefighters using the fire-fighting foam while assisting on a fire at the high school in 1995.

But the EPA standard only looks at two PFC chemicals; not the total of 19 that might affect residents. Much remains to be understood about what's safe and unsafe, particularly when it comes to low-level, long-term exposures, said Denise Bryan, health officer for the local health department.

She criticized the Air Force's stance.

"I watched Sen. Stamas work very hard on that legislation," she said.

"I was at a town hall meeting where the Air Force said, 'Pass the state law, and we will write that check. We will pay for the mitigation of the damages to our residents, and get people on municipal water.' So it happened, and now they want to put their hands up and have attorneys look at everything and find the loopholes. That's not helpful anymore.

"I can appreciate the cost impact for the Department of Defense, because it's a national issue for them, if not international, because of the bases around the world. But right now, I only care about Oscoda Township, because that's where I'm the health officer. Write the check. Be a part of the solution around here."

The DEQ has yet to determine the ending point for the PFC groundwater plume from the base, said agency environmental quality specialist Bob Delaney.

"I have never seen a plume like this," he said. "It is bigger than anything I have ever worked on before -- well beyond any of the traditional contaminants that were on the base, the fuels, the degreasers, the things we've always looked for. These plumes are actually miles beyond those plumes -- between 8 to 10 square miles, that we know of."

Oscoda Township resident Shirley Brockhahn knows her home is near the affected groundwater area, but isn't sure if her well is contaminated.

"We've asked for our water to be tested, but it hasn't been yet," she said. "A few of our neighbors have. It seems to be OK, but at a higher level of acceptable. So we don't know quite what that means. We don't know what we're getting. We don't know if we should put a filter in. We don't know what they are going to do, if it's going to take years. I'm looking for them to put water in for us."

Danny Burns drove from Flint to attend Tuesday's meeting. He said he served at the base from 1974 to 1979, in the jet repair shop, below which the Air Force discovered another potentially health-harming form of contamination, tricholorethylene, or TCE, that required a multimillion-dollar cleanup.

Burns said he had a 6-month-old son and a 17-month-old daughter living with him on the base at the time. Now he wonders if the tumors and cysts his daughter has suffered in adulthood are related to exposures during that time.

"They're just pointing at one chemical," he said. "I'm concerned about some of the older chemicals."

Oscoda Township Trustee Jim Cummings said "mis-estimation of the size and magnitude of the problem" has left township residents waiting years to understand the full extent of the contamination, and to get relief from it.

"We have always been a tourist location, for decades," said Cummings, who will be the township's representative on a Restoration Advisory Board involving the Air Force, state and local officials.

"The multi-generation purpose we've been fulfilling for families is under some threat. We want Oscoda to find its identity again. We have to figure out what we are without being the host of an Air Force base."

(c)2017 the Detroit Free Press