Air Force agrees to additional PFAS cleanup in Oscoda

Wurtsmith Air Museum
Wurtsmith Air Museum, near former the Air Force base from which PFAS has contaminated Oscoda | Michael Gerstein

The U.S. Air Force has agreed to install an additional groundwater treatment system in Oscoda as it continues a years-long investigation into pollution from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

In addition to the new system and the interim pumps the Air Force already has been operating in Oscoda, the Air Force also will broaden the scope of its investigation of the chemicals’ spread and report to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) by the end of the calendar year.

Map of PFAS sites in Oscoda
Map of the PFAS plume in Oscoda from the former DEQ | Michael Gerstein

According to a joint press release from EGLE and the Air Force, the latter will “accelerate the pace of current investigative work” regarding the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination that has spread from the site after years of training procedures that used a type of firefighting foam containing the pollution.

The year-end report will include the results of currently ongoing field work and an evaluation of how effective cleanup efforts have been so far. It will also recommend areas where more groundwater extraction wells might be necessary.

“This is an important milestone, but there is more work to be done,” said EGLE spokesman Scott Dean. “We remain committed to a complete restoration and remedy for the people in Oscoda and we continue to work closely with the Air Force to make sure that they live up to their commitments.”

While it’s useful for putting out jet fuel fires, the firefighting foam once widely used not only in Oscoda, but at Air Force bases around the world contains high levels of PFAS, which has been linked to certain types of cancer and other health problems.

PFAS is a class of roughly 5,000 man-made chemicals that have some of the strongest chemical bonds in existence. The substances take so long to break down that they’ve been dubbed “forever chemicals.”

Oscoda residents vent to Air Force brass about PFAS worries

Air Force officials agreed to install a new system to treat two subcategories of the pollution — PFOS and PFOA —  in Oscoda. That system will be operational by the end of 2019, according to EGLE.

Air Force Assistant Secretary John Henderson told Oscoda residents in April that it may take at least another four years of investigation before they begin a formal cleanup, as the Michigan Advance reported.

Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) Executive Director Steve Sliver and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) have pressed the Air Force for quicker action.

Peters in Oscoda
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and Air Force Assistant Secretary John Henderson | Michael Gerstein

“I invited Secretary Henderson to Oscoda because residents deserved to know how the Air Force was going to assist with remediation efforts in the community,” Peters said in a statement. “One of the biggest takeaways from that meeting in April is that the Air Force must do more to address PFAS contamination that has devastated the area.”

In the new agreement, the Air Force has agreed to use Michigan’s ground and surface water standard of 12 parts per trillion in investigating and sampling PFAS pollution in Oscoda.

The Air Force also agreed to consider cleaning up pollution that may have leached into nearby Van Etten Lake, where homeowners and residents have complained of toxic PFAS foam washing onto shores.

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