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Chemical plumes in Oscoda, Michigan continue to seep from former U.S. Air Force base

Oscoda residents talk with government officials about the PFC plumes contaminating their wells.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Oscoda residents talk with government officials about the PFC plumes contaminating their wells.

Residents of a northern Michigan town are getting briefed today on a threat to their drinking water.

For decades, fire crews trained at Wurtsmith Air Force Basenot far from Lake Huron. But while the base closed more than 20 years ago, the chemicals used to extinguish the flames continue to seep into nearby wells and streams.

The plumes of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) have been migrating from the former air force base into surrounding neighborhoods and the Au Sable River. PFCs have also been detected in fish in Lake Huron.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality project manager Bob Delaney says these chemical plumes are well beyond anything they’ve seen before.

“We have a lot of work to do with just trying to figure out where they are at, what the sources are, and how much we’re going to have to clean up,” says Delaney, “We’ve got a long way to go.”

Delaney says it will take years to address the problem.

Currently, the state is drilling test wells around Oscoda to determine the extent of the PFC plumes. The U.S. Air Force plans further study next summer.


Perfluorinated chemicals are persistent


Experts say PFCsstick around in the environment and in the human body. (You can learn more from thisEPA site).


Kory Groetch is with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“The concerns when you look at animal studies or you look at some of the observations when people have been exposed to higher levels is you see concerns about kidney function, immune system, thyroid function, there is some risk they believe to increasing one’s risk of cancer. So there are some serious questions to be answered about public health concerns if you get exposed to too much,” he says.

Groetch says the levels they’ve found in wells in Oscoda are low. Many homeowners who attended the meeting say they haven’t had any health problems themselves, but they’re worried about what may develop down the road.

Gary Kirby has lived in Oscoda for 14 years. He and his wife have well water, and he says he wonders if the water is the cause of her health problems.

“Since we’ve lived here, my wife’s had a lot of issues. She drank the water, I didn’t. I always drank bottled water. But she’s been drinking it and I know my neighbors have been drinking it. They’re really ill too, they’ve got a lot of illnesses too," he says.

The state of Michigan is paying for hundreds of homeowners to receive expensive reverse osmosis filters to clean their well water of the PFCs, which can’t be removed by simple faucet filters. State officials are also hooking people up to the city’s water where they can.

A long timeline

The Air Force has to pay for the cleanup. It’s working with the state of Michigan and local agencies to determine the extent of the problem and how to clean it up.

David Strainge is the environmental coordinator for Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

“We’ve got an ongoing investigation, I actually have investigation people in the field right now drilling wells and taking water samples," he says. "So the details in our understanding is involving. We’re working really closely with the DEQ to make sure that between us and them we get a real good understanding of both the nature of how groundwater flows here and where we have firefighting foam in the ground.”

Strainge declined to put a price tag on cleaning up the PFCs or to say how long it will take to clean up contamination off site.

Most people attending today’s informational sessions say they believe it took Flint’s water crisis to move officials to take their contamination issue seriously. 

State and federal officials deny that.

*This post was last updated on 10/27/16 at 2:25 p.m.

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.