New Michigan Water Worry Emerges Near Former Air Base

Map of Wurtsmith AFB (U.S. Air Force)
Map of Wurtsmith AFB (U.S. Air Force)

Harmful chemicals spilled from the now-decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base are spreading into groundwater, affecting residential wells and potentially public health in the surrounding Oscoda community, state health officials said.

The Michigan departments of Health and Human Services and Environmental Quality, along with the local health department and U.S. Air Force, will hold a community meeting March 23 in Oscoda to discuss what they know — and don't yet know — with concerned residents.

The contaminants of concern are perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs. They were used in firefighting foams as part of base firefighter training and fire suppression beginning in 1970. Elevated PFCs have been found both on the former air base and in groundwater beyond its boundaries. The state health department in 2012 issued a "do not eat" advisory for non-migratory fish caught from ponds east of Wurtsmith, and in a 7-mile stretch of the nearby Au Sable River, from Foote Dam downstream.

"Exposure to PFCs can affect what's happening with a person's thyroid (glands) and liver; and it can affect cholesterol in a negative way," said Christina Bush, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' division of environmental health.

But it was not until last year that the state's department of environmental quality and the Air Force began separate, parallel testing of potential contamination of residential water wells. Twenty-four homes with well water east of the base were tested for PFCs. All of the well water samples showed PFC levels, and "nearly all of them have PFC levels higher than what we are seeing in the municipal water system that comes from Lake Huron," Bush said.

However, PFCs are an emerging contaminant. Not much is known about them, or their health effects. The only regulatory standard for them is a provisional health advisory from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that sets short-term exposure levels above which the agency believes action (which it does not specify) should be taken, Bush said. None of the well water samples exceed that EPA standard.

But District Health Department No. 2 Health Officer Denise Bryan said she was concerned about the unknown impacts to human health from long-term exposure to elevated PFC levels, even if they don't exceed the EPA short-term standard. Last month, she issued an advisory to the residents whose wells were tested and showed contamination, suggesting that they use alternate water sources for drinking and cooking.

"Some may consider this advisory as alarmist — 'If the EPA says it's acceptable, why is the local health officer calling for an advisory?'" she said. "I think it's just important, with water quality being a major topic today, that we act in a very precautionary way."

Soil in the area around the base is sandy, causing concern that chemical contamination moved quickly through the ground, Bush said.

"We really don't know how long, or to what extent, people may have been exposed," she said.

Even the number of residents affected still is a mystery.

"I don't believe there is a full understanding yet of where the groundwater plume is going, horizontally or vertically," Bush said.

The more-than-4,600-acre former Wurtsmith base began operations as an airfield for military aircraft in 1923. It operated throughout World War II and became a permanent installation in 1951, designated by the Air Force as a fighter-interceptor training base for U.S. Air Defense Command. The base permanently closed in June 1993, as part of a major U.S. military realignment following the conclusion of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The DEQ and Defense Department have worked on the cleanup of various contaminants ever since.

Bob Wagner, chief of the DEQ's Remediation and Redevelopment Division, said his department, in a Feb. 26 letter, asked the Air Force to provide affected residents with water, with no response yet.

"Because we don't exceed a standard, we can't legally compel them to," he said. "We have urged them."

The DEQ does have some things under state law it can mandate that the Air Force do. And the Feb. 26 letter also informed the Air Force of its requirements to continue monitoring the PFCs, determine the extent of the contamination and implement a "sentinel well monitoring system" to keep track of contaminant levels and movements. The DEQ also is requiring that the Air Force assess the effectiveness of its groundwater pumping systems already in place for other contaminants in remediating PFCs, and to "provide a plan for us that provides for a full remedy, knowing that will take some time."

The Air Force had not responded to Free Press inquiries by Wednesday afternoon.

Wagner said he hopes to have the Air Force's response to the DEQ's Feb. 26 letter by the March 23 meeting in Oscoda.

"And I believe the Air Force is participating," he said.

An "open house" featuring officials with the state and local health departments, the DEQ and the Air Force is set from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Oscoda Methodist Church, 120 W. Dwight Ave., with a community meeting following at 6 p.m.

"I am looking for DEQ and the Department of Defense to quantify the extent of testing and the timeline for their testing," Bryan said. "I think about what I would want if I was a resident in the affected area, and that's proactive plans, transparent information, the ability to get updates and to have input into that which affects me."

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