Wurtsmith Air Force base museum | Michael Gerstein

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday that she is invoking a federal law to ensure the U.S. Air Force uses the strictest PFAS standards possible while cleaning up a contaminated air force base in northern Michigan, as well as all other contamination sites in the state caused by military activities.

The Air Force began releasing its long-awaited cleanup plans for the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base on March 16. The base, located in Oscoda in Northeast Michigan, was found to have significant groundwater contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) more than a decade ago.

Now that a plan is being set in action, Whitmer is urging the Air Force to use the state’s strict PFAS standards during cleanup rather than the weaker federal standards. No national Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) exist for PFAS limits in drinking water, and the federal health advisory levels is currently set at 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

Michigan adopted the strictest MCLs in the nation last year for seven specific PFAS compounds: PFNA (6 ppt), PFOA (8 ppt), PFHxA (400,000 ppt), PFOS (16 ppt), PFHxS (51 ppt), PFBS (420 ppt) and GenX (370 ppt).

Michigan’s first PFAS rules for drinking water move forward

In a letter to U.S Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday, Whitmer reiterated Michigan’s strong PFAS standards while invoking Section 332 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). 

“By invoking the provisions of Sec. 332, I am seeking a commitment from the Department of Defense to meet or exceed Michigan’s standards at all sites of PFAS contamination that originated from Department of Defense activities,” Whitmer wrote.

That section of the NDAA states that, upon request from the governor or chief executive of a state, the Secretary of Defense should work to finalize a “cooperative agreement” for the testing, monitoring, removal and remediation of PFAS contamination from a military installation.

That agreement must “meet or exceed the most stringent” of a set of PFAS standards, including national, state and public health standards. Michigan’s statewide standard would be the most stringent in this case.

The law also requires that the Department of Defense reports back to Congress about the agreement and its actions within one year of Whitmer invoking the section.

The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) — which includes representatives from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources — is scheduled to provide a virtual update on its PFAS investigation of the Wurtsmith Air Force Base on April 20, along with the area’s local health department.

Oscoda residents vent to Air Force brass about PFAS worries

Environmental groups have praised Whitmer for her actions.

“The communities around Oscoda that have been knowingly exposed to toxic PFAS from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base for decades deserve assurance that clean-up will meet the highest standards and the Governor invoking this authority is a critical step in that process,” said Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes Regional Executive Director of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV), agreed.

“People in Oscoda have been denied a true plan for cleaning up toxic PFAS in their community for far too long, with years of delays and foot dragging by the U.S. Air Force who’s responsible for the contamination,” Wozniak said. “Gov. Whitmer’s calls for the Air Force to follow strong state standards in its cleanup of PFAS contamination will help protect the health of the Oscoda community and charts a path forward for communities across Michigan grappling with contamination caused by the military.”

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, immigration and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).