Outside Wurtsmith Air Force base museum | Michael Gerstein
The number of identified U.S. military installations with PFAS-contaminated drinking water has increased — and four affected sites are in Michigan, according to Department of Defense (DOD) data obtained by nonprofit activist organization Environmental Working Group (EWG).
PFAS, or long-lasting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a growing cause for concern because of their adverse health effects and resistance to breakdown in a human body. They’re found in aqueous firefighting foam, used extensively at military facilities. Studies routinely show exposure to these chemicals can cause health hazards such as cancer and reproductive issues.
Michigan has the most PFAS contaminated sites in the United States., according to a May report from Washington D.C.- based EWG. As the Advance has reported, the group noted that the high number reflects the state’s aggressive testing and sampling program, led by the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART).
An additional 90 current and former Army and Army National Guard installations have tested positive for PFAS contamination, according to data taken from 2016 to 2019. The four installations in Michigan are all designated as Army National Guard bases.
Here are PFAS levels in parts per trillion (ppt) and the year they were observed:
- Belmont Armory (457.10 ppt in 2018)
- Camp Grayling (172.30 in 2017)
- Grand Ledge Army Aviation Support (13.63 ppt in 2017)
- Jackson Readiness Center (0.69 ppt in 2017)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a lifetime health advisory (LHA) for PFAS at 70 ppt. Data from Belmont Armory and Camp Grayling surpasses that advisory. In a response to the EWG, the Army said it had “mitigated” the levels by diverting water sources and installing filtration systems at locations where PFAS variants were found to the LHA.
“There are currently no Army personnel or families drinking water with levels of PFOS/PFOA above the LHA,” the Army said.
But personnel at the aforementioned bases could have been exposed to the elevated PFAS levels in that time period, EWG said.
“It’s fair to say exposure was a concern,” said Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist for EWG. “There’s a risk there.”
The data show an increase from 18 to 108 in the number of total Army installations with PFAS contamination. It also raises the number of total military installations with recognized PFAS contamination from 207 to 297.
Many of Michigan’s recognized PFAS sites are military bases. Wurtsmith Air Force Base, a decommissioned installation in Oscoda, leached PFAS into soil and underground water and dumped untreated water containing PFAS into a nearby creek. That has prompted concerns from environmental groups and residents.
PFAS is increasingly in the national spotlight. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to add provisions to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to classify PFAS chemicals as “hazardous substances.” The provisions are in conference between the U.S. House and Senate and some have been met with pushback by the White House.
Michigan lawmakers expressed concerns about PFAS at a Sept. 10 congressional hearing. The White House said it “strongly objects” to provisions that authorize the DOD to disclose information about safe drinking water levels and treat contaminated military installations. The White House also opposed a provision to bar the department from using fluorinated firefighting foam without a known replacement, the Advance previously reported.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) — who added three amendments addressing PFAS cleanup to the House version of the NDAA — criticized the Department of Defense in light of EWG’s findings.
“The Department of Defense and the military must stop hiding this and fighting giving us answers. This is a serious problem that the military must be serious about addressing. They need to clean it up,” Dingell said in the statement. “With the EWG’s new findings, it’s even more critical that PFAS provisions in NDAA make it into the final bill.”
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