HOPEFUL, BUT HESITANT – Preliminary plans have been announced for additional PFAS remediation efforts at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base (WAFB) in Oscoda Township. Congressman Dan Kildee (MI-05), pictured here at left, requested an in-person briefing on the plan from John Henderson, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy. Henderson obliged, and is seen here next to Kildee at WAFB’s central treatment facility, which was among the stops during their Aug. 25 visit to Oscoda. The plan is still in the early stages and Kildee notes that, if everything goes the way the Air Force says it will, then this will be a positive step in the right direction. However, he adds that he will believe it when he sees it.

OSCODA – Congressman Dan Kildee (MI-05) says he feels that the U.S. Air Force (USAF) has taken a step in the right direction to address the contamination in Oscoda Township. However, in reference to preliminary plans for additional remediation measures, he notes that he’ll believe it when he sees it.

Kildee sought an in-person briefing on this from John Henderson, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy, who took the Congressman up on his request.

They arrived in Oscoda on Aug. 25 to discuss the latest developments with the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination that has been seeping into the community’s groundwater and drinking water wells. This is the result of the USAF having utilized aqueous film forming foam at the township’s former Wurtsmith Air Force Base (WAFB), for training exercises and to put out fires. The use of the foam at WAFB – which officially closed in 1993 – began in the 1970s.

In a phone interview with this publication after his visit, Kildee shared that he first went to Ken Ratliff Memorial Park on Van Etten Lake (VEL) – often referred to as the Air Force Beach – to meet with members of the Need Our Water group and talk about the issues at hand.

As reported, residents have long been expressing particular concerns with the PFAS-laden foam that has been found on VEL. A public health advisory has been issued here, notifying people to avoid contact with the foam.

Kildee has pointed out that the lake is a popular spot for swimmers, boaters, anglers and others who enjoy spending their recreational time at VEL.

The WAFB pollution has also led to other warnings, including Do Not Eat public health advisories for fish and other wildlife taken from Clark’s Marsh, as well as Do Not Eat advisories for a number of fish species harvested from the AuSable River.

Following his stop at VEL, Kildee met with Henderson at the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, before they headed out to tour some of the WAFB sites.

They also went to the location of where the PFAS plume is moving into VEL.

From here, Kildee said they arrived at the central treatment facility on the former base, along with Oscoda Township Supervisor Aaron Weed, to go through the interim set of steps being proposed by the USAF.

“Which is what we’ve been pushing for,” Kildee noted. “Ever since we were able to get the $13 million for the next phase of cleanup, we’ve been pushing them to use more of that money for interim remediation measures, rather than to just continue to do more studies.”

He was referencing the $13.5 million in Congressional funding he helped to secure, which was approved earlier this year for PFAS cleanup at WAFB.

When attendees of the April 15 Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meeting learned that the plan was to use the funds for more research and studies – not on direct cleanup – they made their frustrations loud and clear.

David Gibson of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center said at the time that it could be another four years before any additional remediation infrastructure is installed.

But meeting attendees – which included Kildee – argued that more than 10 years of investigations have already been carried out, enough data has been gathered and it’s time to put an end to the spreading contamination.

Kildee said it is clear under the law that interim measures are not just allowable, but are called for when there is an imminent, substantial endangerment to public health or the environment.

As for the legislation, he said it was intended that an aggressive approach be taken when there is such an endangerment. The intention of the law is that there would be interim measures enacted to mitigate the threats. Congress appropriated the money to clean up the danger, and that needs to be the focus, he stressed.

Kildee said that, according to Secretary of the USAF Barbara Barrett, the money earmarked for WAFB can be used to fund construction or expansion of additional treatment systems if needed.

He asked the USAF to utilize the majority of the money that Congress intended to be used for mitigation efforts, for those said purposes.

Gibson maintained that the money was allocated to conduct the base-wide remedial investigation (RI) phase at WAFB, which looks at defining the nature and extent of contamination and assessing risk to human health and the environment. He also noted that it may be possible to do some interim remedial actions (IRAs) during the RI.

USAF officials say the RI results will provide the necessary information to make decisions on further remedial actions, including possible interim steps, as necessary to limit PFAS migration and address unacceptable risks.

It was at the July 22 RAB meeting – which Kildee also took part in – when the USAF then announced that more than half of the $13.5 million will go toward further investigation.

Gibson did reveal, though, that the RI contract – which includes IRAs – was awarded to Aerostar on July 14. A detailed schedule of the work will be presented when the RAB meets next in October.

He advised that 56 percent, or $7.6 million of the Congressional money, will go to RI efforts. For the IRAs, 41 percent of the funds ($5.5 million) have been dedicated. The intent of the remaining $355,000 is to dispose of a PFAS-contaminated concrete pad at WAFB’s former fire training area, in order for an enhanced remedy to be installed there.

Since then, Kildee reports that the preliminary plan for additional remediation, as shared by Henderson, represents some progress.

He said that if things happen the way the USAF is saying it will, this will be very helpful – presuming that the work is done right and is based on good engineering.

When asked if he knew the expected time line for when this undertaking will begin, Kildee notes that everything is still in the very early stages. But, according to Henderson’s estimate, some of the steps could be complete by late 2021, into February 2022.

Kildee says the plan includes installing a series of additional extraction wells along the width of the PFAS plume which is moving toward VEL. The wells will take in the water, to then be filtered through the treatment system at WAFB.

The plan further calls for an additional set of wells at critical spots within Clark’s Marsh, to try to stop the migration at this site.

As has been reported, numerous people have spoke out during public meetings about the particularly high levels of contamination in the marsh, with the impact to the wildlife there being just one of the concerns.

They have also noted that another issue lies in the fact that Clark’s Marsh connects to the AuSable River, which then empties into Lake Huron. Therefore, concerns have been expressed over the possibility of this affecting the municipal drinking water supply, as Oscoda draws its water from Lake Huron.

Kildee reiterated that there is a lot more to be done. But, if the additional wells and additional treatment capacity do come to fruition, he says this will be a significant step because it would – theoretically, anyway – stop the migration of more PFAS into VEL.

He was asked whether the USAF seems to be stepping things up and moving any faster, since he shared his initial concerns over the use of the $13.5 million.

Kildee said that, if what Henderson told him actually happens, then this would represent a pretty big change, and a positive one. 

“Because we have been pushing them to use this money to clean up the problem,” he said. “I guess the main point that I’ve been trying to make with the Air Force – which it does seem that Secretary Henderson is being responsive to – is that we know there’s a threat.”

Kildee says it is known that the plumes affecting Clark’s Marsh and VEL are a threat which needs to be addressed.

“We know we have to get the PFAS out of the ground,” he continued. “And so, while there still may be a need for additional engineering and additional study for other aspects, the need for more research shouldn’t prevent us from taking care of the problems that we’ve identified. That’s really been my point to the Air Force.”

As for the next steps, on his part, Kildee says he works for those in the community. So, he vows to continue listening to the people who are impacted by this.

He said his focus has also been to keep pressure on the USAF to act as quickly as possible. Simultaneously, he continues working in Congress to get more financial resources dedicated to cleanup, in general, so that Oscoda has a better chance of obtaining additional assistance.

Kildee adds that the preliminary plans from the USAF show that when the community comes together, and they put the pressure on, sometimes they can have success. “Again, I’ll believe it when I see it, but what they said was a step in the right direction.”

VEL property owner Anthony Spaniola, who has been heavily involved in the WAFB matter, shared his reaction to Kildee and Henderson’s visit.

He claims that, after years of denial, the USAF is finally admitting that its PFAS plumes in Oscoda are contaminating VEL.  

“And, under intense pressure from Congressman Dan Kildee, the Air Force says – preliminarily – that it will take steps to clean up one of those plumes that’s contaminating a public beach on the Lake. It’s not a done deal, and it’s only one plume, but it’s at a site of high public use where a health advisory has been issued for the toxic PFAS foam coming from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base,” Spaniola stated.

“In Oscoda, we’ve seen the Air Force renege on promises before, so we’re more determined than ever to work with Congressman Kildee and our other congressional champions to hold the Air Force’s feet to the fire, not just on the cleanup of this one plume, but on the miles of other PFAS plumes impacting Van Etten Lake, Clark’s Marsh, the AuSable River, and nearby Lake Huron,” he added.

Henderson also spent some time in Oscoda last year, at the request of U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI). As reported, the two participated in a public forum in April 2019 to discuss the contamination, and were joined by more than 100 other attendees.