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Officials expect progress on Wurtsmith cleanup this year, residents want more 'results'

steve carmody
Michigan Radio

State and federal officials say they expect to make headway this year on an underground chemical plume expanding from a former Air Force base.

The chemicals (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are linked to firefighter training on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. The firefighters used the foaming chemicals to extinguish jet fuel fires starting in the 1960s. The base closed in the 1990s. But while Wurtsmith’s been closed for decades,  the chemical plume continues spreading through the groundwater into local wells and nearby open water.

The chemicals are linked to an increased risk of cancer and immune disorders.

This year, officials hope to finish mapping of the plume and expand efforts to remove the chemicals from the groundwater.

The granular activated carbon (GAC) treatment device acts like an artificial kidney. Contaminated groundwater is pumped through the GAC which captures the PFOS and PFOA.  The cleansed water is pumped back into the ground.

Next month, the U.S. Air Force will begin construction of a larger GAC plant. The plant is expected to be operational in August. 

Matt Marrs is the base environmental coordinator for the Wurtsmith project. He admits using this particular process could take decades to remove the chemicals.

“Once you get the system up and running, yes, it could possibly,” concedes Marrs. “Hopefully the technologies will improve.”

Oscoda residents aren’t keen on waiting. Many have grown impatient after spending the past few years learning about the extent of the contamination in their community.

Resident Russell Williams says the response is too slow.

“The people on the ground…want to see results,” says Williams.

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.