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Residents in Oscoda wonder why state didn't act on PFAS issues sooner

At least 14 communities in Michigan have water contaminated with a family of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

One of those sites, in West Michigan, has gotten a lot of attention recently. This month, the state abruptly announced a cleanup standard for PFAS.

But these chemicals have been a pollution problem in the state for years.

In Oscoda, some residents are wondering why remediation is taking so long.

The state began testing the groundwater in Oscoda back in 2010. They found two types of PFAS in private wells, and in Van Etten Lake.

The chemicals are often used to waterproof leather goods, clothing and furniture, and they were used in firefighting foam at nearby Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

Karla Wellman, one of the co-owners of Wellman’s Party and Bait store, says the contamination has hurt her business.

“We used to have fish back here like crazy to clean from that lake. That lake kept us in business during the winter,” Wellman says.

Wellman says Oscoda makes a lot of its money from the lakes and rivers nearby. She says worries about PFAS have led to advisories about how much fish people are allowed to eat from the lakes.

“Even though it says don’t eat the fish, it makes you think like ‘what do you mean don’t eat the fish? Maybe it’s not even safe to be in. Maybe it can be absorbed through our pores or something?’ I mean who knows? People get frightened,” Wellman says.

Wellman isn’t alone in her concern over the chemicals in the environment.

Donna Tingley and her husband Ross moved to their house on Van Etten Lake in Oscoda about 10 years ago.

“I think originally my concern was - what does it do to you? And then my concerns turned to the wildlife. 

Karla Wellman is one of the owners of Wellman's Party and Bait.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Karla Wellman is one of the owners of Wellman's Party and Bait.

You know, the fish in our lake and the deer in this area,” Donna Tingley says.

Ross echoes that concern. Nearby hunting and fishing were big reasons why he moved to Oscoda.

“Now I can’t eat the fish out of the lake because I haven’t been told it’s good to eat. I’m a duck hunter; I’m leery of eating the ducks. There’s no sense in me killing any of these animals if I can’t eat them,” he says.

Both Ross and Donna find it odd that the state is just now ramping up action on these chemicals.

Ross was skeptical from the first time he went to a town hall meeting in 2016. He says he wasn’t sure that representatives from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality were actually concerned.

“Right out of the first meeting, I asked them, I said, 'is the only reason you guys are even here and bringing this up is because of Flint?” he says. “I knew they were getting kicked around for Flint, so I was surprised that it took so long for the state to step in."

State officials say they are responding to the 29 known sites that are contaminated with PFAS. They’re doing testing, and figuring out what remediation might look like.

Carol Isaacs directs the newly formed Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. She says she understands the frustration.

“We are using the best available science that we have right now, and the EPA advisory level that was established in 2016, which is not too long ago,” Isaacs says.

Isaacs says households with high levels of PFAS will get bottled water or water filters.

The magic number is 70 parts per trillion. That’s the action level for PFAS the state announced just this month.

Tom Bruton is a scientist with the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, California. He says some states, like New Jersey and Vermont, have taken a more aggressive approach.

“At the same time, I think that Michigan is ahead of other states. I think there are probably a number of states where PFAS is going to become an issue, but it hasn’t yet. And that’s largely because, for whatever reason, no one has gone out and looked for PFAS,” Bruton says.

The frustration over government response to the chemicals is not limited to Michigan.

The group that represents the nation’s drinking water regulators this week called out federal health and environmental agencies for what it called a lack of leadership on the issue.

Back in Oscoda, Donna Tingley says she doesn’t have a lot of faith in the government.

“I think they don’t really care. I think they’re just putting their time in and not taking anybody but their own lives into consideration,” she says.

Kaye LaFond and Rebecca Williams contributed reporting to this story.

Bryce Huffman was Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter and host of Same Same Different. He is currently a reporter for Bridge Detroit.
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