Environment Picture

Toxic taps: Hazardous chemical plumes are growing at a former Air Force base in northern Michigan

So is public outcry
Oscoda residents attend a town hall meeting about the spreading pollution problem
Last fall, Kathy Abernathy and Doug Trittin plunked down $720 to replace the pump that delivers groundwater to the taps in their Oscoda Township home, just a few blocks from Lake Huron. A couple of weeks later, they learned their well water was contaminated and were advised not to drink it or cook with it.

“Now all the sudden it’s in your drinking water and there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Trittin, 61, who is on disability benefits after working for a logging operation.

Theirs is among about 180 wells near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base to test positive for a class of manufactured chemicals called PFASs—poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances—which have been linked to increased cancer risk, liver damage, decreased fertility and other health impacts. So far only two wells have turned up concentrations above a federal advisory level, but some scientists say that level is much too high, since little is known about the health impacts of low-dose exposure to PFASs.

The pollution came from firefighting foams used decades ago that have migrated beyond base boundaries and are moving through groundwater supplies, perhaps as quickly as two feet per day. Authorities have known about other kinds of pollution at the base for decades, but didn’t discover the PFAS plumes until 2010. Since then, they have struggled to get a clear picture of the pollution’s scope or predict where it will turn up next. Residents, meanwhile, are concerned that exposure to the chemicals may be taking a toll on their health and are growing impatient with what some see as a foot-dragging response from the Air Force.

Health worries

In February 2016, health authorities recommended that many residents using private wells near the base switch to alternative water sources. Experts initially assumed that nearby Van Etten Lake would stop the pollution’s advance toward Lake Huron, but PFASs have been found east of the lake—where Abernathy and Trittin live—as well as east of Van Etten Creek and south of the Au Sable River, which were also assumed to be natural barriers. Health officials have since drawn a larger area in which they recommend anyone on well water seek an alternate source, regardless of test results and even if their water hasn’t been tested.

So far, a $1 million state budget allocation and a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Oscoda Township have helped to provide water jugs, reverse-osmosis filters or connection to the local municipal water system.

Since receiving their well test results in October, Abernathy and Trittin have used only bottled water they’ve bought.

“It’s very expensive,” says Abernathy, 58, who works for the local Head Start program. “But we’re not sure what else to do.”

She and Trittin are eligible to receive a water cooler or a reverse-osmosis filter, but they declined to sign a waiver holding the local health department harmless if something went wrong with the filter. Abernathy says they did not realize until an April 25 public meeting that the waiver only applied to the filters and not to water coolers, which they now plan to request.

They also are concerned that exposure to PFASs may be the reason Abernathy’s grown daughter has an autoimmune disease, though the science on that connection remains fuzzy. Veterans and others who lived on or near the base suspect PFAS pollution is to blame for their cancers, thyroid diseases and other illnesses, and some are calling on the government to do an in-depth health study.

“I know that my daughter has lupus,” Abernathy says. “And no one else in my family has ever had lupus. But she and four of her friends, all who live around the base, all have lupus.”

Uncertain impacts

At both the federal and state levels, regulators are playing catch-up when it comes to PFASs. In May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a drinking water advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for a combination of PFOA and PFOS, two of the most-studied PFAS chemicals, but that is a guideline, not a law.

Michigan hasn’t previously set a standard for PFASs but is including PFOA and PFOS in an ongoing process to update standards for hundreds of chemicals. The draft standards are less stringent than the EPA advisory level, with a proposed threshold of 89 ppt for PFOA and 80 ppt for PFOS.

The good thing about PFASs, from an industry perspective, is that they can withstand extreme heat and pressure. That gives them a wide range of uses. They make nonstick cookware un-sticky, food packaging grease-resistant and clothing more waterproof. PFAS are used in electronics, building materials, cars, airplanes and more.

The bad thing about PFASs, from a public health perspective, is that they can withstand extreme heat and pressure. That makes them very slow to break down in the environment and in the human body. They are basically everywhere. A 2016 Harvard study found that more than six million Americans get their water from sources that tested above the EPA advisory level for PFOA and PFOS. Federal research suggests more than 98% of Americans have PFAS chemicals in their blood.

About 3,000 PFAS chemicals are used worldwide. Water tests have found 19 of them on and around Wurtsmith, but that’s only because the samples were analyzed for that group of 19; there are “probably hundreds” of PFASs in the area, according to Dorin Bogdan, a consultant working with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

They are what environmental health professionals call “emerging contaminants,” meaning they haven’t been sufficiently studied. Still, while the health implications of the chemicals aren’t fully understood, there’s plenty of evidence that they are dangerous.

Among the largest human health assessments of any toxic chemical was an epidemiological study in West Virginia including more than 69,000 adults who had PFOA levels in their blood five times greater than the general U.S. population. The study was part of a class-action lawsuit settlement against DuPont, which contaminated local water with PFOA, also called C8, the key ingredient of its Teflon coating. The study found probable links between elevated blood-levels of PFOA and high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid issues, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, preeclampsia and elevated blood pressure during pregnancy.

Because the chemicals aren’t well understood, there is disagreement about what level of exposure should be considered safe. A scientific advisory board to New Jersey’s environmental agency has criticized the EPA’s advisory level, arguing that, “It cannot be concluded that exposure to (70 ppt) is protective of the most sensitive populations with a margin of exposure.” That panel recommended a drinking water limit of 14 ppt—the strictest in the country—and will also set a limit for PFOS. Vermont has a drinking water standard of 20 ppt for PFOA and PFOS.

Some say even New Jersey’s proposed standard doesn’t go far enough. Researchers Philippe Grandjean from the Harvard School of Public Health and Richard Clapp at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell suggest the safe drinking water level should be set at just 1 ppt.

No guidance

In its prime, Wurtsmith Air Force Base housed thousands of military personnel and their families. As Cold War tensions eased and the country’s military needs shifted, Wurtsmith was deemed unnecessary. It closed in 1993. Since then, the Oscoda–Wurtsmith Airport has used the property, mainly for repairing and maintaining aircraft. Many civilian facilities now occupy the former base, including an industrial park, library, community center, health clinic and the Oscoda Township Outdoor Sports Complex.

When Wurtsmith closed, the Air Force identified 88 active cleanup sites on the base where fuels, solvents or other toxic contamination were present. Groundwater treatment systems have cleaned up the majority of those sites.

The PFAS contamination was discovered much later because so little was known about the chemicals, according to Bob Delaney, the DEQ’s point person for the Wurtsmith response. “When we first started looking at it, there weren’t any criteria,” he says. “There was no guidance on anything.”

The Air Force used the PFAS-laced Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) because it could put out the hottest of fires in a minute or less, in an environment where seconds could mean lives. And until relatively recently, most people thought it was safe. Delaney says some parents on the base used to let their children play in the foam.

Delaney began to hear rumblings that the chemicals could be a concern—including provisional health advisories from the EPA in 2009—so in 2010, when other soil sampling was happening at Wurtsmith, he requested PFAS tests. They came back positive. In 2011, the DEQ tested fish from marshes along the floodplain of the nearby Au Sable River. The results were astounding.

“The levels were so high, the lab thought it was some kind of academic study,” Delaney said. In fact, they were the highest levels in fish found anywhere in the literature on PFASs. The state health department immediately released a do-not-eat advisory for some local fish. (Experts say PFAS-tainted water is safe for bodily contact, but not ingestion.)

Values betrayed

As many local residents see it, it’s time for the military to fix the problem it caused.

Aaron Weed served for 22 years in the Air Force and took pride in its stated principles: Integrity first; Service before self; Excellence in all we do. Now, as Oscoda Township Supervisor, he doesn’t see action to back up those words.

“It’s very disappointing to see the Air Force not live up to its core values,” he says.

Some officials and area residents want to see the Air Force pay to connect all affected property owners to the safe municipal water system, but the Air Force says the Department of Defense prohibits it from paying for alternative water sources for residents unless their well tests above the EPA advisory level of 70 ppt.

That’s not the right approach to protect public health, according to Denise Bryan, an officer with the local health department. “I know they said it’s not violating the EPA guidelines, but I’m like, don’t wait for it to turn to the red-flag condition,” she says. “Let’s act now and not really have anybody at risk for drinking water that has PFAS.”

A bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland) and signed last year by Gov. Rick Snyder amended the state Safe Drinking Water Act to require the state or federal government to provide an alternative water supply to property owners whose wells were contaminated by government activity if state health authorities issued a drinking water advisory. But the Air Force announced in April that it would not comply with the law, calling it “discriminatory” because it does not apply to “all entities and persons.” Stamas says the decision breaks a promise from the Air Force that it would pay for filters, water jugs and municipal hook-ups if state law compelled it to.

In 2015, the Air Force installed a treatment system on the base that is removing PFASs from one of the most contaminated sites using a technology called granular activated carbon, and it is contracting to add that same technology to two treatments systems that are cleaning up other contamination on site. “But why it’s taken them more than two years to convert the other pumps, I don’t understand,” Weed says.

Paul Carroll, manager of an Air Force program that deals with closed bases, pledges that the military will fix the problem. “The Air Force will remain here until this cleanup is done,” he told the town hall crowd in April. Feasibility studies suggest that will take about 30 years, Carroll says.

“Another 30 years is unacceptable,” Weed said at the town hall, the fourth such public meeting for residents. “We want it taken care of now.”

Slow progress

There’s evidence that the Air Force has already delayed cleanups across the country by failing to act on the findings of its own scientists dating back to the 1970s, according to a 2016 investigation by the Colorado Springs Gazette. And Wurtsmith is far from the only military base with PFAS pollution. A recent analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that the Department of Defense was testing nearly 400 sites across the country and that water was contaminated with PFASs on or near more than three dozen of them.

The Air Force last year began replacing AFFF with a new type of firefighting foam that is PFOS-free and contains little or no PFOA, according to Angelina Casarez, a public affairs specialist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. It also has taken steps to prevent contamination at sites that still have AFFF on hand, such as conducting any training exercises over double-lined pits and treating any uncontained release of the foam as a hazardous-material spill requiring immediate cleanup.

This summer the Air Force will conduct additional well testing to see if PFAS levels change as more seasonal visitors likely increase the amount of groundwater being pumped to the surface. It will also launch a remedial investigation to better understand the extent of the PFAS plumes and identify spots where the chemicals are most likely to contaminate drinking water wells, Casarez says. And the Air Force has announced it is reconvening a local citizen advisory board, created to address earlier contamination at Wurtsmith, to help guide the cleanup process.

It’s progress, but it isn’t going to quiet the local voices calling for more aggressive investment and intervention to ensure all residents have safe water and to clean up the mess as quickly as possible.

“Quite frankly, with the new politics coming out of Washington, DC, there seems to be a devaluing of environmental issues,” says Bryan, the local health officer. “I’m not backing away. I think this is relevant, and the time is now to address these emerging contaminants.”

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What are these chemicals?

Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs—sometimes called PFCs—are manufactured chemicals used in packaging, clothing, cookware, building materials, electronics and other items.

Plumes of PFAS chemicals that were used decades ago in firefighting foams at the Wurtsmith Air Force Base have entered groundwater supplies and migrated beyond the base’s boundaries, contaminating drinking water wells around Oscoda.

Similar plumes have been found at military bases nationwide, including recently discovered contamination at the Michigan National Guard’s Camp Grayling. A study released this June by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University found PFAS chemicals in the drinking water of 15 million Americans in 27 states, with military bases making up 21 of the 47 sites identified.

Are they dangerous?

PFASs are known as “emerging contaminants,” meaning they haven’t been sufficiently studied. However, studies have linked the chemicals to serious health conditions such as cancer, liver and thyroid issues, ulcerative colitis and complications with pregnancy.

How are they regulated?

The science on PFASs is evolving quickly and regulators are playing catch up.

Last year, the EPA set a combined drinking water advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common PFAS chemicals. It is a guideline, not a law. Some states have set stricter standards. Vermont has a combined standard of 20 ppt for PFOA and PFOS. A science advisory board in New Jersey has recommended a drinking water limit of 14 ppt for PFOA and will also develop a limit for PFOS. And in Minnesota, regulators recently updated guidelines and are advising cities and homeowners to seek alternative supplies if their water has 35 ppt of PFOA or 27 ppt for PFOS.

To date, Michigan has not issued standards for PFASs in drinking water. A workgroup updating cleanup standards for a long list of chemicals recently added PFOA and PFOS to the list, but the draft recommendations call for standards of 89 ppt for PFOA and 80 ppt for PFOS.

Some scientists say even the stricter state-level standards are lax, and that the appropriate advisory level should be set at just 1 ppt.

What is MEC doing about this problem?
Policy Director James Clift is part of the workgroup that has recommended standards for PFOA and PFAS. As that group continues to meet, James is pushing for more stringent standards that are based on the latest science and that will better protect public health.
-Andy McGlashen
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