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Oscoda residents want faster PFAS cleanup at former Wurtsmith AFB

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Chanting “Nine Years, No Plan, No Action,” Oscoda residents rallied on Tuesday outside a town hall meeting reviewing the cleanup of PFAS contamination seeping from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

The chemicals are from firefighting foam used by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for decades. PFAS have been detected not only on the former air field, but in the groundwater and in nearby waterways.

PFAS(per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have been associated with health issues including some kinds of cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, ulcerative colitis and possible immune system effects in kids.

The U.S. Air Force is the lead agency involved in the cleanup project. No representatives from the U.S. Air Force attended Tuesday night’s town hall.   

Representatives of the Michigan Departments of Health and Human Services and the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) gave updates on studies being conducted to map the PFAS plumes in and around Oscoda.

At the town hall meeting, Oscoda residents complained about the pace and priorities of the cleanup plan.   

Activist Cathy Wusterbarth says state and Air Force officials need to do more.

“The plumes are still moving into the waterways,” says Wusterbarth. “They are not doing their job. They need to stop it at the source, and they are not doing that.”

One speaker called state regulators "ineffective" in their dealings with the U.S. Air Force. 

Under an agreement reached with state regulators in April, the USAF agreed to use Michigan’s 12 parts per trillion groundwater-surface water interface (GSI) criterion in its investigation when sampling and measuring PFOS (one common kind of PFAS). USAF also committed to completing and submitting the ongoing Expanded Site Inspection (ESI) report to EGLE by the end of this calendar year.

A spokesman for the state’s PFAS Action Response Team says the April agreement shows progress. 

But spokesman Scott Dean says it’s only a first step, adding that the state of Michigan may pursue legal action to force the Department of Defense to take additional steps.

“If we don’t get satisfaction for the people of Oscoda, there are any number of options the state has, including legal options,” says Dean.

In April, Air Force officials said they will need four more years to study the Wurtsmith PFAS contamination. The Department of Defense has installed equipment to treat contaminated groundwater. 

The Department of Defense is involved in similar cleanup projects in hundreds of other communities nationwide. Members of Michigan’s congressional delegationhave said the Pentagon needs to spend more money on cleanup projects. Members of the Trump administration have recommended that President Donald Trump vetoa defense authorization bill containing requirements for PFAS cleanup. 

Activist Cathy Wusterbarth worries that if more progress is not made in Oscoda, it will be forgotten.

“We’re up here in the middle of the woods,” says Wusterbarth. 

Listen to the conversation above with Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody and Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about the meeting Tuesday night in Oscoda.

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.
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