Michigan Warns of PFAS Levels in Deer Around Air Force Base

A side of wild deer meat ready to be cut up. Meat from deer around Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan has been contaminated by chemicals from firefighting foam. (Getty Images)
A side of wild deer meat ready to be cut up. Meat from deer around Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan has been contaminated by chemicals from firefighting foam. (Getty Images)

OSCODA, Mich. -- The state of Michigan has issued a "Do Not Eat" advisory for deer meat taken within a five-mile radius of a wetland area contaminated by some of the highest levels of toxic PFAS chemicals found in Michigan's environment.

The advisory -- a first of its kind related to PFAS in Michigan land animals -- was issued in conjunction with a violation letter to the U.S. Air Force, which state regulators say is polluting Michigan surface waters with PFAS levels above enforceable limits.

The violation notice is the second one sent to the Air Force this year related to PFAS contamination caused by past use of AFFF firefighting foam at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. It occurs amid an ongoing dispute between the Air Force and the state about the pace and adequacy of cleanup efforts in the area.

"The slow response by the Air Force to the Wurtsmith contamination is having an increasingly negative impact on the people, wildlife, and environment in Oscoda," said Carol Isaacs, director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART).

According to the state, a deer shot near Clark's Marsh had 547 parts-per-billion (ppb) of the individual compound PFOS in its blood. The state health department and natural resources department say "action" is recommended at a 300-ppb level.

The state says PFAS was either not found or at low levels in muscle samples from 19 other local deer tested. The state released little specific data about the deer testing, nor did it say whether different parts of the animals tested at higher concentration levels. PFAS are known to accumulate in certain organs such as kidneys.

The state plans to test more deer in the area.

The DNR says deer sampled from PFAS investigation sites in Alpena, Rockford and Grayling showed low to no levels of contamination.

High blood levels in Oscoda deer indicate that underground PFAS plumes are impacting surface waters, which are regulated by enforceable state rules. The state's enforceable standard for PFOS in rivers, lakes or streams is 12 parts-per-trillion (ppt).

The Michigan DEQ says that monitoring well and surface water samples from Clark's Marsh show high PFOS levels. Groundwater beneath the marsh test as high as 42,000-ppt for PFOS, and surface water contamination as a high as 1,410-ppt.

The state says it's requiring the Air Force to increase its pumping and treatment of contaminated groundwater at the former base grounds from 250 gallons-per-minute (gpm) to 1,040-gpm, and increase the plume capture zones.

In January, the DEQ issued the Air Force a violation notice for failing to meet a 2017 deadline to start up a second groundwater filtration system at the base. The new system only became operational this summer.

Isaacs said that Michigan has "sought to work cooperatively with the Air Force," but that "slow response to PFAS contamination is not acceptable and the state is prepared to use every regulatory and legal means necessary to force the Air Force to address this contamination."

Clark's Marsh and the Au Sable River south of the base is already under a "Do Not Eat" advisory for fish species due to the contamination.

Karla Wellman, co-owner of Wellman's Sport Center in Oscoda, was upset to learn about the additional wildlife consumption advisory for the area. The PFAS contamination has already cast a shadow over a beautiful area.

"People hunt there all the time," she said.

Wellman's processes deer meat in addition to operating as a local bait shop near the Au Sable River mouth at Lake Huron. She said the shop hasn't been cleaning as much fish as it once did, and thinks it's due to the advisories and large amounts of unsightly PFAS foam showing up on the surface and beaches of Van Etten Lake, adjacent to the base.

Photos of the foam "look like snow on the river," Wellman said.

"I'm not happy about it," she said. "It's a good thing we wear all these hats in northern Michigan. Otherwise, we'd never survive. We'd be a damn ghost town."

Despite the advisories, there's still some who eat fish from contaminated waters and will continue to do so, she said.

"I've got a 76-year-old guy who catches all kinds of fish and eats them on a regular basis," she said. "He doesn't care. He's going to live his life the way he wants."

Whether that attitude will translate to deer hunters, she couldn't say.

"I don't know," Wellman said. "We haven't crossed that bridge yet."

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This article is written by Garret Ellison from MLive.com, Walker, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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