Treated water from the PFAS plume underneath the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base flows into Van Etten Creek, where a “do not eat fish” advisory has been in place since 2012 | Michael Gerstein
With 224 sites in Michigan, including several military bases, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters called on federal authorities to be more responsive to addressing community concerns over contamination by toxic “forever chemicals.”
“Many communities have been waiting far too long for any kind of meaningful action,” Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) said Monday during a hearing at Michigan State University in East Lansing to discuss PFAS contamination in Michigan and beyond.
Peters, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, invited government officials, experts and Michigan community members to share plans, solutions and experiences to improve the government’s response to PFAS contamination in Michigan and the entire nation.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are toxic chemicals that break down very slowly and are often referred to as “forever chemicals.” They are widely used to make products such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant clothing, carpet and a type of firefighting foam.
The chemicals have been found in the air, water, soil and in fish at sites across the country and world. Human exposure to these chemicals has been linked to harmful health effects, according to the National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences.
Peters said Michigan has the highest number of recorded PFAS contamination sites in the nation, which he attributed to the state being “on the forefront” of identifying locations.
According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, there are currently 224 PFAS sites in Michigan, including Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Gwinn, Van Etten Lake in Oscoda and Camp Grayling U.S. Army National Guard Base.
In 2020, the state of Michigan adopted the strictest maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) in the nation for seven specific PFAS compounds. However, cleanup work on the existing sites is ongoing, and officials have said the growing efforts to reduce PFAS would be bolstered by congressional action.
Patrick Breysse, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said the agency is working with state health departments across the nation to investigate PFAS exposure and health effects in 40 communities including the Belmont-Rockford area.
The agency is also working to provide support for Michigan’s effort to address contamination at Camp Grayling.
Representatives from the U.S. Air Force discussed ongoing efforts to address PFAS contamination at their bases in Michigan, while Peters pressed them on the timeline for efforts at Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
Nancy Balkus, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force’s Environment, Safety and Infrastructure Department committed to incorporating Michigan’s standards into its own cleanup efforts. Balkus also committed to holding public meetings where community members can meet with experts working on the cleanup efforts.
Contamination continues to impact Mich. communities
Cathy Wusterbarth, the founder of Need Our Water and Oscoda Citizens for Clean Water, served as a lifeguard on a U.S. Air Force beach in Oscoda. Wusterbarth later developed cancer and continues to battle immunological diseases.
When discussing the Air Force’s cleanup efforts in Oscoda, Wusterbarth said communication has been difficult.
“We have a new site manager about every two years,” she said.
The community stood by the Department of Defense while Wurtsmith was in operation and expects them to reciprocate in how they approach the water crisis, Wusterbarth said.
Wusterbarth called on the Department of Defense to use Wurtsmith as a model project for other contaminated bases. She also asked them to monitor and support community health and start fresh in creating community partnerships, alongside an apology.
Lt. Col. Craig Minor, who worked and lived at Wurtsmith from 1985 to 1990, shared the myriad health issues he and his family face as a result of PFAS exposure.
“It’s time for local, state and federal leadership to officially recognize this event,” Minor said. “To start, governments and applicable agencies need to cut through the red tape and add this poisoning event to the [Department of Veterans Affairs] presumptive list.”
Adding Wurtsmith Air Force base to this list would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to concede that veterans were exposed to hazardous substances during their service at the base, for the purpose of healthcare benefits and wartime disability.
Breanna Knudsen, an environmental program response specialist for the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe Indian Tribe of Michigan, said there are three PFAS contamination sites within reservations and ceded territory near Wurtsmith Air Force Base. High levels of PFAS contamination have also been detected in fish caught in Clark’s Marsh in Oscoda.
Tribal nations have the right to enforce cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 2002, but they cannot take action until the federal government designates PFAS as a hazardous substance, Knudsen said.
Additionally, she noted that PFAS-contaminated fish caught in the water near Saginaw Chippewa reservations prevents the full exercise of hunting, gathering and fishing rights guaranteed through treaties with the federal government.
Federal agencies begin to take action
There are currently no national drinking water standards for PFAS.
That may change relatively soon, however, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced a “PFAS roadmap” last fall that is meant to guide and strengthen the feds’ strategy on the chemicals over the next three years.
Bruno Pigott, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Water, discussed the PFAS roadmap and highlighted steps that the agency has taken since its introduction in October.
Those recent actions include:
- Releasing drinking water health advisories for four PFAS compounds
- Putting $1 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding toward addressing PFAS in drinking water, particularly for small or disadvantaged communities
- Adding five PFAS compounds to a list of risk-based values for site cleanups
“Looking ahead, our top PFAS priority is to set enforceable national drinking water regulations — a step Michigan and other states have urged us to take for years,” Pigott said.
He said that the agency plans to propose a rule to set enforceable limits for drinking water by the end of the year, then finalize it by the end of 2023.
The plan is to also designate PFAS as hazardous substances under a federal act, which would allow stronger action to remediate the chemicals.
Pigott praised the state of Michigan for setting a national example for PFAS protections.
“Michigan has been a proactive leader. Michigan has been a model for other states and an example for us to truly deliver protections that communities deserve,” Pigott said.
Most of the research into PFAS contamination has been focused on drinking water, said Cheryl Murphy, director of the Center for PFAS research at Michigan State University. She noted that while this is important, PFAS is also found in the food supply and natural resources.
Collaboration between agencies would be a considerable benefit in advancing research, including addressing the need for equipment and facilities, Murphy said.
There are many PFAS issues that could benefit from coordinated efforts at the federal level, including food testing, research into the human health effects of PFAS, and improved public transparency, said Abigail Hendershott, executive director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.
For his part, Peters has introduced numerous bills — including the Preventing PFAS Runoff at Airports Act and the Federal PFAS Research Evaluation Act — that tackle PFAS exposure and provide for further research on the issue.
“I think one of the major takeaways of the hearing is just how comprehensive we have to be in addressing this problem,” Peters said. “There is no one size fits all response and it has to be very focused on local communities.”
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.