Air Force polluted Michigan town's drinking water, refuses to offer clean supply

Air Force polluted Michigan town's drinking water, refuses to offer clean supply
A US Air Force base long leeched toxic fluorocarbons into a Michigan town's groundwater, and new tests show contaminants have spread. Yet the Air Force has largely denied responsibility despite an expanding community health hazard.

New testing of groundwater in Oscoda, MIchigan, indicates that pollution from Wurtsmith Air Force Base has traveled to two new waterways in the town thought to be buffers from chemical pollutants originating at the base, according to MLive.

A three-month-old state law calls on the Air Force to compensate state and local agencies for work done to combat the contaminants, yet the Air Force insists it is immune to the "unnecessary" legislation.

The contaminants are perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), also referred to as perfluorinated chemicals, that have spread through Oscoda's groundwater in plumes coming from the base. The Air Force used PFAS-riddled firefighting foam at the now-closed base from the 1970s through, at least, the mid-1990s, MLive reported.

Mostly known for use in industrial and manufacturing processes, PFASs can bioaccumulate in humans and remain in blood and organs for many years. High concentrations of the substances have been linked to a variety of major health problems, including those related to functions of the liver, thyroid, pancreas and reproductive system, among others, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state ramped up its testing for PFASs in the base area beginning in 2010, MLive reported in January. In February 2016, local health officials and the state Department of Health and Human Services issued a joint advisory calling on some residents in the area who rely on private wells near the base to "seek an alternative water supply." A "do not eat" advisory for non-migratory fish caught near parts of the base remains in place.

Since the water advisory more than a year ago, the state has offered reverse osmosis water filters, water jugs and has sought to extend municipal water mains with a federal government grant and $1 million supplied by the state, according to reports.

A state law that went into effect in January calls on the Air Force to reimburse the state and local governments for work done to mitigate the increasing impact of the base's PFASs on local groundwater. The law, Public Act 545 of 2016, demands the state or federal government offer an "alternative water supply" to relevant private residential well owners if government pollution triggers a drinking water advisory, as it has in Oscoda.

The Air Force, however, refuses to comply with the state law, saying that very few residential well owners have showed that their drinking water has exceeded PFAS standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Until levels hit that threshold, the Air Force says it is not obligated to provide compensation. The Department of Defense (DOD) has claimed that the law is "unnecessary" and "would not be enforceable" because the military is immune from state law.

"Because the proposed legislation discriminates against the DOD, we would not be able to expend funds to comply with it if it became law," wrote DOD environmental coordinator James R. Hartman in a letter to the state Legislature in November.

The Air Force has maintained its posture. Spokesman Mark Kinkade said the law "does discriminate as it only applies to federal and state agencies, not to all entities and persons" and that the Air Force is "not authorized" to follow the law.

The latest testing for PFASs found a second instance of drinking wellwater that has exceeded EPA standards. A well around Oscoda High School is the second such well in the area to show levels above the federal health threshold, MLive reported. Firefighting foam was used by the base at the school during a 1995 fire, investigators believe.

Local officials say they will seek to hold the Air Force accountable for its damage to the community.

"I am extremely disappointed in the US Air Force for not living up to its word and its responsibilities," state Senator Jim Stamas, the sponsor of the state law, told AP. "The federal government needs to be held accountable for what they did, and I will be asking Attorney General Bill Schuette to pursue action to enforce the law."

US Rep. Dan Kildee added that he thinks the Air Force is not "moving with the urgency they should be" on the issue.

"Ultimately, the logical conclusion says the Air Force is going to have to spend some money to get this out of the ground," Kildee said. "Let's get on with it and do it on a scale that's somehow equal to the size of the problem."

A 2016 Harvard study of approximately 36,000 EPA water samples taken from 2013 to 2015 at industrial sites, military fire training locations, airports and wastewater treatment plants found levels of PFASs that go beyond what is considered safe by the federal government. Researchers determined that drinking water for 6 million people in the US is at or beyond the EPA safety threshold for PFAS levels.

Xindi Hu, the study's lead author, warned that "the actual number of people exposed may be even higher than our study found, because government data for levels of these compounds in drinking water is lacking for almost a third of the U.S. population—about 100 million people."