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U.S. Defense Department expanding PFAS cleanup at former Wurtsmith Air Force Base

Former Wurtsmith AFB, Oscoda, Michigan (file photo)
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

An activist says there’s been a “major shift” in the way the U.S. Department of Defense is approaching the PFAS cleanup at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in northern Michigan.

On Wednesday night, Defense Department officials announced plans to install two new groundwater treatment systems near the base, which borders the community of Oscoda near Lake Huron.

The systems will be installed at two locations with the intent of reducing the spread of an underground PFAS plume from reaching the nearby Van Etten Lake.

PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a family of industrial chemicals used in a variety of products that have been linked to serious human health problems, including cancer. They have also been called “forever chemicals” because they don’t degrade in the environment.

Firefighting foam containing PFAS was used at Wurtsmith AFB for decades as part of firefighter training. Contamination from those exercises created the PFAS plume beneath the base that has been slowly spreading into the surrounding Iosco County community ever since.

Appearing on Stateside, local PFAS activist Tony Spaniola said the new approach by the Department of Defense will, in effect, “stop the bleeding” of contaminated groundwater into Van Etten Lake and eventually into Lake Huron.

“That really is the first step we need to take,” said Spaniola.

Local residents have been demanding for well over a decade that the Department of Defense do more to contain the PFAS contamination and clean it up.

Michigan U.S. Representative Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, called this week’s announcement “long overdue.”

“For far too long, Oscoda and surrounding communities have lived with the impact of PFAS contamination created by the Department of Defense,” said Slotkin in a press release. She said the new plan is “a positive step forward.”  

Department of Defense officials concede more needs to be done to clean up the decades of PFAS contamination under and around the former Air Force base. 

Department records in 2021 showed PFAS had been detected at levels up to 213,000 parts per trillion near the Oscoda base.

According to the Defense Department, Wurtsmith Air Force Base served primarily as a combat crew and bomber training base throughout its 70-year history and operated from 1923 until decommissioned in 1993.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.
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