Wurtsmith Air Force Base museum | Michael Gerstein
The United States Department of Defense announced on Thursday that it will be taking additional measures to expedite PFAS cleanup at the former Wurtsmith Airforce Base in Iosco County.
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante said the department will install groundwater treatment systems at two additional Wurtsmith sites to stop the flow of PFAS-impacted groundwater from both source areas into nearby Van Etten Lake.
Wurtsmith Air Force Base — located in Oscoda in Northeast Lower Michigan — operated from 1923 to 1993. State agencies first became aware of PFAS contamination in March 2010.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are often called “forever chemicals” as they do not break down easily. These toxic chemicals have been linked to harmful health effects including various types of cancer, and are found in hundreds products such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant clothing, carpet and a type of firefighting foam.
According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), there are 286 PFAS contamination sites and areas of interest in the state, including Wurtsmith. The United States Air Force (USAF) has been leading the cleanup of the site with oversight from EGLE.
“Implementation of these new interim actions is a step in the right direction for the Wurtsmith community,” LaPlante said in a statement. “While I am proud of today’s tangible progress, we also recognize there is still more work to do, and I look forward to building upon them as we continue honoring our commitment.”
LaPlante also shared his gratitude to U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) for their partnership and advocacy for local communities.
Peters and Stabenow have long advocated for cleanup of the site, with Peters, the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, hosting a field hearing in East Lansing last year to discuss ways to improve the government’s response to PFAS contamination.
Earlier this year, Peters pressed Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to commit to taking remedial action at the site without further delay. In a statement released on May 13, Peters criticized the Air Force’s response to the contamination, saying the Air Force had yet to implement a comprehensive cleanup plan despite investigating the contamination at Wurtsmith for more than 13 years.
In April, Bergman also pressed Kendall on the cleanup efforts, asking if the Air Force would commit to stopping the flow of PFAS into public waterways and containing the contaminant within the boundaries of the base without delay.
“This announcement is a positive step in our yearslong effort pressing the Air Force to address PFAS contamination at Wurtsmith,” Peters said in a statement.
“I welcome this action to prevent the spread of these toxic chemicals, but there is no question more must be done — and the Air Force must expedite cleanup efforts to protect public health and ensure access to clean drinking water in Oscoda. I’ll continue to push the Air Force to take additional steps and hold them – and other federal agencies – accountable to mitigate PFAS at Wurtsmith and in other Michigan communities,” he said.
Slotkin also praised the announcement, but said more work needed to be done.
“For far too long, Oscoda and surrounding communities have lived with the impact of PFAS contamination created by the Department of Defense. The actions announced last night – adding groundwater treatment systems at two new sites – are a positive step forward, even with much more work to do,” Slotkin said in a statement.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also released a statement applauding the Airforce for taking action to mitigate contamination.
“Today, after years of advocacy and action by state government, our congressional delegation, and so many community leaders, the USAF is stepping up their response by taking additional actions to tackle PFAS contamination around Wurtsmith Air Force Base and prioritize the health and safety of Michiganders in the area,” Whitmer said.
“I am grateful to everyone who fought so hard to get this done, and I am grateful to the USAF for taking actions that support Michigan’s strong standards against pollution, PFAS, and other contaminants,” she said.
The Great Lakes PFAS Action Network and members of Need Our Water Oscoda also thanked the Department of Defense for taking interim action to prevent contamination.
“Our community has grappled with PFAS contamination stemming from the Wurtsmith Air Force base for years, and this latest announcement is a big step forward for protecting our health and cleaning up the Au Sable River, Van Etten Lake and Lake Huron,” said Cathy Wusterbarth, co-founder of Need Our Water Oscoda and a leader in the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network.
“Countless meetings, negotiations, public awareness events and steadfast advocacy led to these actions. We are grateful for our members of Congress for keeping the pressure on the Department of Defense, and the dedicated PFAS activists in Oscoda and across Michigan for keeping this issue front and center for our leaders,” Wusterbarth said.
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