Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy, John Henderson, right, speaks with media representatives after the April 24 public forum on contamination in Oscoda Township. His visit to the community came at the request of U.S. Senator Gary Peters, left.

OSCODA – John Henderson, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy, has replied to a list of questions posed by those in the Oscoda Township area, regarding  per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination generating from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

The questions were gathered by Township Trustee Timothy Cummings, which he then submitted to Henderson. As reported, Cummings offered during a board meeting on March 25 to take inquiries from anyone who had lingering questions they felt have not been addressed by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) or Department of Defense (DoD) and require further clarification.

He accepted questions through April 5, noting that the goal was to give them to Henderson ahead of his visit to the township on April 24. The hope was that the answers would be provided during his time in Oscoda.

When Henderson arrived to attend a community meeting on PFAS, Cummings said the answers were not available, but he was told that written responses would be forthcoming.

He then sent an e-mail to Henderson on May 21, in which he asked a separate set of questions, but also reminded Henderson of the inquiries from the public. Henderson replied to the community questions, as well as those from Cummings, on July 3.

(Due to the length of the discussions, a summary of Henderson’s replies to the additional questions posed by Cummings will be printed in next edition of this newspaper).

A copy of the e-mail correspondence was obtained from the township by this publication, via a Freedom of Information Act request. Several of the community questions are listed below, followed by Henderson’s responses in italics.

• Michigan is considering lowering the maximum PFAS levels for drinking water. Is the Air Force going to recognize these standards (if implemented) and abide by them?

CERCLA [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act]  – specifically, 42 USC section 9621 – sets out the requirements for evaluating which state statutes and regulations qualify as an applicable or relevant and appropriate requirement (ARAR). 

The Air Force and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy will identify potential ARARs during the remedial investigation (RI) phase of the CERCLA process. If the RI determines that a remedial action is required in order to protect human health and the environment, then remedial action alternatives are evaluated during the feasibility study (FS) phase of the CERCLA process.

Compliance with ARARs is one of the criteria used to evaluate alternatives during the FS. ARARs are included in the document that describes the selected remedy, which is called a record of decision.

If the state of Michigan does promulgate new criteria for PFAS, the Air Force will evaluate these criteria during the RI phase to determine if they qualify as a potential ARAR, and determine whether the ARAR is applicable to a remedial action for that site.”

• Why won’t the Air Force acknowledge the State’s ground/surface water interface [GSI] laws of 12 and 11 ppt [parts per trillion] for certain PFAS molecules? What specific laws prevent the Air Force from acknowledging this, and what laws allow the Air Force to acknowledge it?

CERCLA – specifically, 42 USC section 9621 – sets out the requirements for evaluating which state statutes and regulations can be used as cleanup standards.

The Air Force already has acknowledged that the state’s GSI cleanup criteria for PFOA [perfluorooctanoic acid] and PFOS [perfluorooctanesulfonic acid] will be potential ARARs when the Air Force reaches the cleanup phase of CERCLA.”

• The Air Force assisted with forest and structure fires in the Oscoda area such as the McDonald Store along F-41, the Colbath/Alexander neighborhood, and the [Oscoda Area Schools complex]. These areas have tested with high amounts of PFAS with an AFFF [aqueous film forming foam] signature and documentation proves the Air Force used foam in these areas. What are the Air Force plans, budgets, and schedules to remediate these areas?

As a policy, the Air Force only responds to off-base fires upon request of the local community in conformance with local mutual aid agreements.

The Township’s question states that the Air Force assisted with forest and structure fires in the Oscoda area such as the McDonald Store along F-41, the Colbath/Alexander neighborhood, and the school, and states documentation proves the Air Force used foam in these areas. The Air Force has searched for a mutual aid agreement between the Air Force and either Iosco County or Oscoda but has not found a copy of such a mutual aid agreement. If the township has a signed copy of a mutual aid agreement between the Air Force and either Iosco County or Oscoda, please provide a copy to the Air Force.

With the exception of a letter signed by the Oscoda Township Fire Chief, which provided some details regarding the school bus barn fire in 1995, and a bare-facts fire incident report, the Air Force has not found nor received documentation related to the school bus barn fire. The Air Force notes that the letter from the Oscoda Township fire chief specifically states that the Wurtsmith Caretaker Force, not the Air Force, responded to the school bus barn fire. Wurtsmith closed on 30 June 1993, and the fire at the school bus barn occurred on 18 October 1995. 

Based on our information, any remaining Air Force personnel located at the former Wurtsmith AFB during this time period were associated with BRAC property disposal and technical work associated with base closure activities. If the Township has additional documentation related to these fires as the question suggests, please provide this documentation for Air Force review.

Investigations by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and Health and Human Services (MDHHS) have found that the PFOS/PFOA levels in the Oscoda High School drinking water supply have been below EPA’s [Environmental Protection Agency] LHA [Lifetime Health Advisory]. Additionally, groundwater migration pathways from mission activities on Wurtsmith Air Force Base to the Oscoda High School area have not been identified.

The Air Force has no plans for remediation at areas where it responded to a request from a local fire department for activities unrelated to the Air Force mission.

• When will the Air Force schedule an investigation of wildlife in the area which has been contaminated by the Air Force PFAS pollution (as proven by the State)? What specific laws prevents the Air Force from doing so, and what specific laws allows the Air Force to do so?

There are currently limited criteria for evaluating risk to wildlife or for human exposure through consumption of wildlife. The Air Force will use available information during the RI performed under CERCLA which includes risk assessment pathways to human exposures. Development of the scope of work and resultant work plan, including the risk assessment process, will be in cooperation with EGLE and others.”

• When is the Air Force going to install additional treatment facilities for the remainder of the PFAS plumes?

The Air Force remains focused on protecting human health by implementing steps to ensure safe drinking water. Interim remedial actions or removal actions are options at any point during the CERCLA process if there is a determination of an imminent or substantial endangerment to human health or the environment. The Air Force will evaluate the need for interim or removal actions as it works through the CERCLA process.”

• Why won’t the Air Force acknowledge the foam on Van Etten Lake is from the plumes emanating from Wurtsmith AFB, which has been proven to have the same chemical signature as the AFFF used by the Air Force?

The Air Force does acknowledge that PFOS/PFOA is in the foam, and the Air Force is a likely contributor. Following CERCLA, the Air Force will perform an RI as the next phase. During the RI the Air Force will evaluate all possible risk pathways and exposures as part of the risk assessment process under CERCLA.”

• The Air Force keeps saying that CERCLA does not allow them to remediate several areas of PFAS. What specific CERCLA laws prevent the Air Force from remediating all remaining PFAS plumes? What laws allow the Air Force to do so?

The Air Force has authority under CERCLA to remediate releases of PFOA, PFOS, and PFBS that create an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment. Currently, there are only three PFAS compounds with EPA toxicity values and reference doses: PFOA, PFOS, and PFBS. Therefore, the Air Force cannot address other PFAS compounds at this time. During the remedial investigation the state will have the opportunity to identify other requirements as potential ARARs.”

• How can the [USAF] make a promise they will restore our community and then make statements like in the December 7th response letter to MDEQ that it won’t make any new efforts to clean up chemical contamination at the base, and criticized the state for issuing a notice of violation for Clark’s Marsh?

The Air Force has committed to following the CERCLA process to investigate and address, if appropriate, PFOA/PFOS contamination at Wurtsmith. At Clark’s Marsh specifically, the Air Force is evaluating the current system to determine whether it needs to be expanded.

While it is true that Congress has waived sovereign immunity under CERCLA, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act for certain state laws, it is not a blanket waiver. The Air Force is bound by CERCLA to evaluate the state statute referenced in the notice of violation as a potential ARAR later in the CERCLA process; however, it is immune from enforcement of Michigan’s groundwater-surface water interface statutes and regulations.

The Air Force continues to collaborate with EGLE on the environmental work at Wurtsmith. The 7 December 2018 response letter was a legal response to a legal notice of violation; as such, the language was highly technical and crafted to preserve the Air Force’s legal rights. The formal response does not detract from the good working relationship that the Air Force has been building with the Oscoda community.”

• The Air Force holds monthly remediation meetings with [EGLE] and MDHHS. Oscoda Township was allowed representation at these meetings. Two years ago, the Township was kicked out of those meetings. The justification given referenced a DoD regulation that did not specify any such justification. Will the Air Force allow the Township to attend those meetings again? We were recently told those meetings were to be relocated to Lansing. Will the Air Force continue to try to remotely manage Wurtsmith remediation meetings or will you continue to manage it on site?

The Wurtsmith BRAC Cleanup Team (BCT) is composed of environmental managers and subject matter experts from the Air Force and the state of Michigan working together as a team to address environmental restoration issues. BCTs are designed to allow frank collaboration of technical issues between the Air Force and state and federal regulators. The Department of Defense manual that governs remediation defines the BCT to only include the Air Force and its state and federal regulators. The BCT is moving its meetings to Lansing to maximize participation of state technical personnel and lower the cost of state participation.”

• I would like to know if the pump and dump stations are continuing to pump untreated water into the storm drains, and what are the plans to get that water treated.

The Arrow Street and Benzene Plant purge wells have been connected to the Central GAC  [Granular Activated Carbon] Treatment System. Extracted groundwater from these wells is treated at the Central GAC Treatment System to remove PFOS/PFOA to the state of Michigan surface water quality standards prior to discharging the recovered groundwater to the storm drains.

A new treatment system is scheduled for construction in 2019 for the Mission Street purge wells to treat PFOS/PFOA in recovered groundwater. Construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of calendar year 2019, and once operational, the Mission Street treatment system will remove PFOS/PFOA from recovered groundwater to the state of Michigan surface water quality standards prior to discharge into the storm drain.”

• Is Clark’s Marsh included in the Air Force study area or not? If so, why do we not yet understand the nature of contamination?

Although Clark’s Marsh is outside of the former Wurtsmith AFB boundary, it is part of the study area because it’s downgradient from the former firefighting training area FT-02. FT-02 is one of the sources of contamination at Clark’s Marsh. The geology is more complex in this area. The current stage of the CERCLA investigation is focused on characterizing contamination in the source areas, like FT-02. The Air Force installed the FT-02 GAC Pump and Treat System to reduce offsite migration to Clark’s Marsh. Impacts to Clark’s Marsh and any potential remediation actions will be assessed in later phases of the investigation.”