A Michigan community’s long battle with PFAS and the Pentagon | National

It was five years ago, while he was kayaking with his wife on Lake Van Etten in northeastern Michigan, next to a former Air Force base, explains attorney Anthony Spaniola, when he spotted a work crew testing a foam substance on the beach.

He says he had heard that the state had found astronomical levels of toxic perfluorinated and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, in the moss that formed a snowy ridge around the lake. The foam is said to contain 2,200 parts per trillion of PFOS, a type of PFAS. The Environmental Protection Agency has set the current safe level of PFOS at 0.02 parts per trillion.

Spaniola paddled over to contractors testing the foam to see what results they were getting.

“I said to them, ‘I saw this story in the log of about 2,200 parts per trillion. That seems really high to me,” Spaniola said in a recent interview. “And in a candid moment, one of them said to me, ‘Dude, we’ve gone way higher than that. “”

Spaniola was discovering what hundreds of communities across the country had learned with increasing frequency over the past decade: U.S. military installations have colossal problems with PFAS, also known as “eternal chemicals,” because they don’t break down naturally, like the coatings on nonstick cookware and the flame-resistant compounds in fire-fighting foam used by the military. The chemicals are also highly toxic, having been linked to a wide range of health problems, even at very low exposures.

And in Michigan and most other states, the Department of Defense has done little to address its PFAS issues despite the millions of dollars that have been provided for cleanup work in recent bills. authorization and defense credits. More such spending along with a mandate to act is proposed in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 that passed the House and awaits action in the Senate.

Since early 2010, Spaniola has participated in community efforts to get the DOD to clean up contamination that has spread over nearly 6 square miles, including parts of Lake Van Etten, the Au Sable River and the groundwater used by hundreds in the town of Oscoda on the shore of Lake Huron.

The toxic substances came from Wurtsmith Air Force Base, a sprawling complex that operated for 70 years before being designated a Federal Superfund site in 1994, the year after it closed. Most of the PFAS came from powerful extinguishers known as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) used to put out fires and in training exercises at the base, long a training site for bomber crews.

But it wasn’t until 2010, through testing by a state environmental specialist, that PFAS was discovered in water supplies, making Wurtsmith the first of more than 700 military sites contaminated by the highly hazardous compounds.

‘Dirty 50’

Wurtsmith is one of the worst of these sites, part of a group dubbed the “Filthy 50” by environmentalists and members of Congress, but getting the Department of Defense to clean up the mess has been an excruciatingly slow process and sore.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., co-chair of the congressional PFAS task force that was formed in response to activism at Oscoda, described his efforts to force a DOD cleanup as “frustrating” and “maddening.”

Kildee and other Michigan Democrats, including Representatives Debbie Dingell and Elissa Slotkin and Senator Gary Peters, pushed Congress to provide $175 million to fight PFAS in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2022, and the 2023 NDAA that was passed by the House has a provision that would require the Pentagon to adhere to the “strictest” PFAS standards, whether federal or state – language born out of the DOD’s refusal to follow the Michigan’s stricter limits on PFAS.

“I shouldn’t even have to write a memo, let alone pass legislation, that compels the DOD to comply with state and federal requirements,” Kildee said. “(DOD) should do it just as a moral obligation.”

For at least a decade before Wurtsmith’s closure, AFFF was not only sprayed on the ground, but also stored in leaky tanks and dumped in grassy areas off the runways, “just 500 yards upriver in the aquifer of the main drinking water wells”. said retired Air Force officer Craig Minor, who was stationed in Wurtsmith in the mid-1980s and now says he and his family have serious health issues.

At an August hearing in Michigan’s Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Peters, Minor said he was hospitalized with a prostate problem in Wurtsmith, then a tumor developed. was formed shortly thereafter. His son was born with severe cerebral palsy and microcephaly, and his wife miscarried their next child, he said.

It wasn’t until years later that they discovered that health problems like theirs were linked to exposure to groundwater containing up to 43,000 parts per trillion of PFAS.

“Today my liver and spleen are enlarged and my kidneys are malfunctioning,” Minor told the hearing. “It is now 40 years since the citizens of Wurtsmith began drinking AFFF PFAS in massive amounts.”

No plan yet

Nearly 13 years after the discovery of PFAS, the Department of Defense has still not implemented a cleanup plan.

In 2016, the Air Force announced it was voluntarily complying with what the EPA called a lifetime health advisory, a suggested but unenforceable maximum for PFAS exposure, of 70 parts per trillion.

At that time, the “area of ​​concern” for PFAS-contaminated drinking water covered hundreds of homes near the withdrawn base. The Air Force has denied responsibility for nearly every contaminated well, forcing the state to provide bottled water or reverse osmosis filters under the sink. To date, an Air Force spokesperson said it has provided only one household with alternative drinking water, at a cost of $4,600.

Meanwhile, the spokesperson said the DOD is still conducting studies and identifying solutions in what it calls the “corrective investigation phase,” which is expected to be completed by the end of 2023. Next, the spokesperson said the department will need to complete a feasibility study, come up with a cleanup plan, allow 30 days for public comment and finalize the decision. It will probably be several more years before Oscoda sees the start of any real clean-up work.

The Department of Defense also said it lacked funding for a cleanup that is expected to cost Oscoda at least $239 million, though that figure could rise as the EPA tightens its PFAS regulations.

Congress stands ready to provide the funds, Kildee said. The DOD only has to give out a number, which it has been slow to do in the past.

“Let’s face it, the Ministry of Defense has never been shy about asking for money,” he said. “We’ve dramatically increased the amount of money available for the cleanup — it’s been driven by Congress … but they shouldn’t need congressional persuasion” to apply for funding.

friend to foe

Community leaders like Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network that works to address PFAS contamination at military bases in the region, say the DOD is dragging its feet.

Oscoda is a working-class town with many retired military personnel, “a natural constituent of the Pentagon,” Spaniola said. “It’s a small, very patriotic American community in northern Michigan, and they were sad when the base closed. But there was a really good relationship there, and it turned into outright hostility. I didn’t think I would ever see anything like it, and it was all DOD inspired.

This summer, the EPA updated its lifetime health advisory and lowered the acceptable threshold for certain PFAS in drinking water from 70 parts per trillion to as low as 0.004 ppt, levels the Air Force says not being able to reach.

Nancy Balkus, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety, and infrastructure, told the Senate hearing that the new levels are lower than current methods can detect, meaning that he cannot comply with the new limits.

“We can only test up to 4 parts per trillion,” she said. “And it is very difficult to determine a clean water source if we can only test up to 4.”

This does not bode well for other military sites around the country with high levels of PFAS. According to a DOD spokesperson, 702 military installations across the country require a PFAS assessment. Although the majority are in the Air Force, there are also contaminations at other bases, including those run by the National Guard.

The spokesperson said the department is “committed to fulfilling its cleanup responsibilities, complying with the law and powers under federal cleanup law, and communicating and engaging clearly with communities. “.

But Spaniola said he believes the DOD is doing everything it can to reduce cleanup costs at Oscoda because it would set a precedent for its contaminated sites elsewhere.

Kildee agrees. “If it hadn’t been for the persistence of the community, as well as myself and my colleagues in the Senate, I don’t believe even these inadequate measures would have been taken,” he said.

The Pentagon has also yet to release a congressional-mandated report, which was due in May, detailing the status of the cleanup of the so-called Filthy 50.

“I think (the DOD) thinks they have a PR problem,” Spaniola said, “and they certainly do. But they also have a substance problem, and I believe there’s an opportunity to make Wurtsmith a national showcase for someone higher up to grab the opportunity.