OSCODA – “Air Force fly right!” “Today, not tomorrow!” “Clean it up, now!” These were among the numerous chants called out by those who participated in a rally, prior to the start of the June 6 Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meeting.
The Need Our Water (NOW) community action group hosted the rally, which featured about 35 participants toting signs with such slogans as, “Your Mess is Now Our Mess” and “Don’t Hide the Facts! Fix it Now!”
Those who took part were stationed at both the entrance of the Robert J. Parks Library in Oscoda – where the meeting was held – as well as at the front of the building, to seek action on the cleanup of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination coming from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base (WAFB).
Practices carried out by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) when the base was active – such as the use of PFAS-laden aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) for firefighting training – has led to contaminated groundwater, the full extent of which is yet to be determined.
Rally supporters ended their demonstration at the start of the meeting, which was attended by representatives of such entities as the USAF, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Congressman Dan Kildee’s office and U.S. Senator Gary Peters’ office.
The gathering began with opening remarks from RAB co-chairs Matt Marrs, of the USAF, and community representative Arnie Leriche.
Leriche called for more input from the public, urging those in attendance to meet some of the RAB members that evening, start communicating with them and express their concerns, so that the issues can be raised at future meetings.
He also suggested making an action item out of his request to have the MDEQ plume modeling report released. The document was completed last August and has been under review.
“That study is meant to show where the plumes are now and where the contaminants are coming from,” he explained, adding that the information is crucial for a number of reasons, including to determine the health impacts on veterans and citizens who were drinking the water during and after the base was active.
The RAB was given a chance to provide updates since they last met in April, and RAB member and NOW co-leader Cathy Wusterbarth shared that her group continues to grow and collaborate on statewide efforts with similar organizations in other areas.
“We’re also demanding the release of the study by the ATSDR [Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry] that has been suppressed and that will likely show evidence for the lowering of safe PFAS levels and greatly impact the process that we’re in right here,” she said.
MDHHS Toxicologist and RAB member Christina Bush then advised that the results are in from re-sampling efforts recently conducted in the Colbath neighborhood and the River Road/Pinecrest area. Letters showing the results were to be mailed to residents this week.
“But, essentially, our recommendations do not change. The people in those areas can continue using their wells, except for the one person who had the exceedance in his initial round of sampling across from the school,” she explained, of a homeowner whose well showed contamination above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) lifetime health advisory (HA) of 70 parts per trillion. This individual has already been set up with an alternate water supply.
Robert Delaney, RAB member representing the MDEQ, added that there were no residential wells near Colbath above the HA, but one of the monitoring wells showed perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) above the HA.
He said some wells still need to be re-sampled and the plumes are not consistent, so his department will be keeping a close eye on the Colbath area.
Bush then noted that MDHHS is finishing up its evaluation of the foam which has been appearing on Van Etten Lake (VEL) and has shown high levels of PFOA plus PFOS, with the latter being the predominant PFAS in the foam.
Once the evaluation is complete, Bush said a detailed, scientific discussion will be provided to the local health department.
In similar matters, Delaney said the MDEQ is contracting to have a pilot test on the capture of the foam. It will be explored this summer whether the methods for removing the foam are effective and make sense to do on a regular basis.
Delaney said the foam issue is occurring in other municipalities, but the study in Oscoda will be the first of its kind.
He and Marrs then gave a joint presentation on how the USAF incorporates, reviews and utilizes data generated by the MDEQ.
Marrs explained that the USAF uses approved, controlled methods to gather data, adding, “And the collection of this data is critical in the understanding of the groundwater profile. And it’s critical in making the decisions on the mitigation systems that can be used effectively to protect the drinking water.”
“They still are only accepting the contamination on the base and slightly off the base. They haven’t said, emphatically, ‘no, it’s not our contamination,’ on the east side of Van Etten Lake, but you won’t ever see any of their maps showing the plumes on the east side of the lake, or in the AuSable River or any of that,” Delaney pointed out, adding that these details are, however, shown on MDEQ maps.
He also explained that PFOS and PFOA are the two chemicals which are regulated and that the federal government has set a HA number for, as far as what is considered safe in drinking water.
However, AFFF contains a whole list of chemicals and, when the USAF and MDEQ sample and analyze, they get data for the entire suite of chemicals. Right now though, as a matter of policy, the USAF only puts on their maps the chemicals which have been given a HA criteria.
Delaney said the MDEQ lists all the contaminants on its maps. “So that’s another difference in how we use data.”
He noted that there will likely be more criteria coming out for a couple more chemicals and, when this happens, the USAF will add these to their maps.
“I would like to know, then, who is doing the monitoring out at Clark’s Marsh,” said Robert Tasior, community RAB member.
Delaney said this is the responsibility of the MDEQ and USAF, and the Air Force has a pump-and-treat system (PTS) in that area which they monitor to see if the system is working properly, capturing what it is intended to and discharging safe water.
Additionally, the USAF has been doing more investigation and sampling there, and MDEQ is continuously checking the water to make sure it is improving.
“So is that still considered a secondary source – Clark’s Marsh area?” asked Tasior.
“The reality is, is that the sediments out there are contaminated, but they’re contaminated by these plumes. So the plumes come in, they pass through the sediments and they accumulate in the sediments like they accumulate in the fish. And then, they continue to bleed off into surface water,” Delaney answered.
He said, in the way Tasior is thinking, it will be a secondary source into the future.
RAB member William Gaines then asked about the process by which a source of contamination is determined, and who will take responsibility for same, particularly for areas such as the east side of VEL and locations where water bodies are not blocking the passage of chemicals, as was initially presumed.
“Those of us that live here have no concept of what other possible source could lead to that pollution, if it isn’t Wurtsmith,” he said.
Marrs said all of these items will be addressed as the USAF moves through the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) process, which dictates the action that can be taken by the USAF.
“In the process that the Air Force is following, it is required of them to find the full nature and extent of contamination,” Delaney assured.
He said there are several hypotheses for how the contamination reached the other side of the lake, and MDEQ has been conducting investigations to find answers.
However, Delaney said it is the opinion of MDEQ that this contamination is coming from WAFB, with one of the questions being how there can be such a large plume without an equally large source.
Marrs noted that the USAF is placing emphasis on the drinking water receptors on the west side of the lake because, on the east side, surveys show there is another groundwater divide and the water migrates from Cedar Lake down to VEL, on the east side of the lake.
As the USAF completes more investigations, there will more answers, but Marrs said they are focusing on the west side for now.
Following this, he gave an update on the supplemental site inspection (SSI), which is being used to evaluate the need for additional mitigation at various sites on WAFB property.
As they make their way through the SSI, the USAF will provide recommendations for the mitigation needed to ensure the drinking water wells remain below the HA for contamination. The field work for some of these areas began in May.
As part of the SSI, the USAF will conduct hydrogeological investigations at multiple areas on the former base, evaluate the down-gradient extent of contamination in several locations, set additional vertical aquifer sampling locations, explore interim action options, re-evaluate existing data, update groundwater monitoring, continue to protect drinking water receptors, assess the need for quarterly sampling and see if there are any trends in concentrations.
Beth Flynn, a geologist for Amec Foster Wheeler, which is a contractor with the USAF, added that 59 more samples from 21 WAFB locations have been collected since the last RAB meeting. These samples are currently being analyzed. Permission is also being sought to do some sampling on the other side of F-41.
Flynn shared that samples have been taken from an additional 29 residences, and the contractors are waiting to hear back from about nine more homeowners. The goal was to complete the work sometime this week.
The results will take four to six weeks to come in, after which it will be shared with the residents. Flynn said the process can then begin for looking at any trends with private wells and concentrations in groundwater.
Following this, Marrs updated the audience on the progress of the granular activated carbon (GAC) treatment plant which is currently being constructed on WAFB to filter out PFAS.
He said RAB members walked the site prior to the meeting, the contractors are doing an outstanding job and there will be much more activity in the coming weeks.
Marrs shared photos of the construction progress, and said he hopes that a ribbon cutting celebration to show off the plant can be held in conjunction with the next RAB meeting.
He explained that only half of the 60-foot by 120-foot structure will be used at first, so there will be plenty of room for expansion in the future. One of these goals will be to move from treating 500 gallons per minute (gpm) to 1,000 gpm.
According to Marrs, the program managers want to start looking at resin and other treatment technologies, as well, in addition to the GAC system. He said he hopes that a presentation can be arranged this fall, where experts will provide information on the different treatment technologies.
As for the next phase of the GAC plant, Marrs said the goal is to tie the facility into the Mission Street PTS in 2019.
Community members and RAB representatives have also expressed their desire for more fish tissue sampling in the area, so this topic was addressed by Bush.
She said MDHHS has been keeping an eye on the contaminants which can get into fish, and how these contaminants apply to the Eat Safe Fish program.
Bush said much of the information about how the work is done and where people may get data and fish consumption guidelines can be found at michigan.gov/eatsafefish.
According to Bush, the preferred sample amount is at least 10 fish of each species of interest, since the statistics get stronger with a larger population, but as few as five fish can be used for MDHHS to give its advice.
“We have done some sampling previously in water bodies in the area, certainly Clark’s Marsh. We have not re-sampled there because we need to fix – if it’s possible to fix – the situation at Clark’s Marsh and then we’ll see how that affects the contamination in the fish. Right now, the Do Not Eat for any species in Clark’s Marsh ponds still stands,” Bush told attendees.
She noted that MDEQ works with the Department of Natural Resources to obtain the samples and, this year in VEL, they caught 10 pike, 10 walleye, six black crappie and five rock bass. They will attempt to collect some perch later this summer, as well.
“The AuSable, downstream of Foote Dam, was also sampled,” Bush continued, saying 10 Atlantic salmon and 10 smallmouth bass were taken.
She pointed out that MDHHS recommends a Do Not Eat Fish guideline for non-migratory species in the lower AuSable River, such as smallmouth bass. This is due to the fact that there were multiple variations of PFOS concentrations from prior samplings.
“PFOS is the specific chemical that really builds up in fish. And we were seeing that in the non-migratory species when we first started doing sampling around this area. And with that variation, it tells us that there’s something not quite right in the river system; let’s be protective and recommend not eating these fish until we know more. And we’re hoping that the smallmouth bass sampling will help us inform more,” Bush went on.
She added that samples may also be taken this summer of bluegill and pumpkinseed near the river mouth, which will guide MDHHS as to whether they need to collect other species near the river mouth.
“We are also planning on sampling fish from Cedar Lake later this summer, so we can understand if there’s an issue there and, if not, that’s great,” she advised.
“Is there a way that we can kind of customize an annual sampling based on the circumstances that we’re going through, so that we’ll have ongoing annual data to see if we can remediate this issue and where we will remediate this issue?” asked RAB member and AuSable Township Trustee Jeff Moss.
He said everything is being gauged on the last fish sampling data from several years ago, so he was requesting a more customized plan. For example, walleye fishing at the mouth of the river is huge to a lot of people in the community, and the sampling should be based on what residents are catching and eating.
Bush said she will make sure Moss’ request is taken to the decision makers in her department, and she will get back to him.
Further, she noted that as new samples come in, they can be compared to previous ones. This will also guide future events.
Another sampling update was provided by Delaney, who said that MDEQ used professional hunters this spring to take 20 deer from Clark’s Marsh to be analyzed for PFAS. The results are expected some time this fall, and the samples are part of a statewide effort. Additionally, while deer were being examined for other issues at check stations this past fall, they were also sampled for PFAS.
Delaney then shared updated plume maps, explaining that contamination has been detected around the Cedar Lake area.
“Every place that we’ve sampled so far has had some contamination, although, it’s been light contamination – it hasn’t been like what you see over here on the base,” he advised.
He also said the existing PTS facilities have been blocking some of the plumes from getting off the base and, while it’s not treating PFAS – which will, however, be accomplished with the new GAC system – it is intercepting this.
“We’re going out and we’re sampling surface water all around the base and in various waters. We want to keep doing that to see how the surface water is responding to different remedial actions,” he also explained.
According to Delaney, the plume modeling report is being reviewed by a hydrogeologist, and the document will form the basis for asking for a health study and other requests.
He added that MDEQ is working with the Department of Defense on a vapor intrusion investigation, since a lot of the chemicals used by the USAF could vaporize and enter basements and homes. A work plan is being formulated to determine whether anyone has been exposed to such vapors.
When it was time for public comments, attendees first heard from Gene Kirvan, a NOW member who is also the president of the AuSable River Chapter of the Michigan Steelheaders and of Lake Huron Sportfishing.
He said he feels that, since WAFB and surrounding areas are such a hot spot, annual fish sampling would be the most proactive action to protect the health of citizens and visitors to the area.
“Fish consumption and sampling for PFAS around the Wurtsmith site is a human health protection issue. We are asking for annual, yearly testing of game fish which people target and consume, and also to include yearly testing of white-tail deer and native and migratory game birds people consume, as well,” Kirvan said.
Oscoda Township Clerk and RAB Alternate John Nordeen then took to the podium, saying that the USAF is addressing drinking water on west side of VEL, as opposed to east, which implies that that is the sole focus.
Moss interjected, asking why an environmental assessment can’t be done.
“My point is, is that we have known contaminants, AFFF that’s in our aquifer; we’re all asking to know what’s going on in our environment, outside the fence line,” said Moss, noting that an assessment would clearly show some areas in which to focus the remediation.
Marrs suggested making this an action item, adding that he will get an official response from the USAF attorney.
Delaney elaborated, saying that the CERCLA process will require the USAF to do a human risk assessment in a future phase, as well as an ecological risk assessment.
“I can be patient if I see real action in other areas. But it appears that the Air Force just hides behind the CERCLA process, and it’s frustrating. I hope that’s not the case and, if it is the case, I just hope everyone’s letting their conscience guide and I hope their conscience can bear it if that truly is the case, because it’s very frustrating to have that perception,” Nordeen commented.
David Winn, who owns property on the east side of VEL, also spoke, asking whether any further well testing will be done in this area.
“We’re actually putting in some new monitoring wells,” Delaney answered, saying the wells will be tested two weeks after installation, and the results are expected in about two months.
As for residential wells, Delaney said the MDEQ has limited funds available for this. So they focused on areas where they didn’t know what the levels were, or where people were not getting alternate water, such as the Colbath and River Road areas.
Samples haven’t been taken from the east side of VEL because these residents are able to receive alternate water.
A letter was also submitted by Tony Spaniola, which was read by Wusterbarth. He recommended as an action item that the assistant USAF secretary and assistant defense secretary be requested to meet in person with impacted citizens in the Oscoda area.
“Because the assistant secretaries are responsible for policies directly impacting PFAS remediation in our area, a firsthand view might help them to understand that the Air Force’s cookie cutter remediation approach is inadequate because it fails to take into account the fact that Wurtsmith is bounded by public water bodies and fisheries. A firsthand view would further put them in a better position to submit more realistic budget requests to Congress,” according to Spaniola.
Marrs said this will be taken into consideration.
Tom Ponder, who owns property on Loud Drive, said he was stationed at WAFB in the early 1980s.
He had a more positive view of the situation, saying that, while there still appears to be some disconnect, there is also progress being made and action taken.
“And this base, if you’ve never had a chance to go back to other bases, is a shining example of how to do it right,” Ponder said of WAFB.
The meeting wrapped up with an update from Melanie Brown, director of public affairs and outreach for MDEQ.
She shared that Carol Isaacs, head of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, as well as the MDEQ director, attended a recent EPA summit where they were very engaged with the various leadership.
They requested the data from the ATSDR so it can be shared with all the communities and experts in Michigan, along with local and federal partners, so they can be more informed and make their own assessments, according to Brown.
“That request was made directly to top leadership of all of those departments, and we are of the understanding that that information will come,” she said.
“The other thing that we did is we spent quite a bit of time with our Congressional delegation there in Washington,” Brown continued, saying she is happy to report that the entire statewide delegation is extremely supportive of the efforts to hold accountable the necessary parties. There is also support for trying to work together to make sure that they can draw down any additional funding for impacted communities, such as Oscoda, where more money is needed for cleanup efforts.
“The administration at the state level will not rest until we are able to see some remedy that is acceptable to our community here, as well as to our leadership team. So we are constantly working toward that goal and that is our goal that we focus on every single day,” Brown said.
She also shared that the EPA wants to visit other states which are experiencing PFAS issues, so the agency is coordinating with its counterparts at the state level and across the country to organize some sort of localized summits to talk about the issue. There is no confirmed date for this, but Brown’s department will make everyone aware of when this may happen.