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ArcaMax

A Michigan community's long battle with PFAS and the Pentagon

Valerie Yurk, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

It was five years ago while kayaking with his wife on northeast Michigan’s Van Etten Lake adjacent to a former Air Force base, says attorney Anthony Spaniola, when he spotted a work crew testing a foam substance on the beach.

He says he’d heard that the state had found astronomically high levels of toxic per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, in the foam that formed a snowlike crest around the lake. The foam was said to contain 2,200 parts per trillion of PFOS, a type of PFAS. The Environmental Protection Agency has set the current safe level of PFOS at 0.02 parts per trillion.

Spaniola paddled over to the contractors testing the foam to see what results they were getting.

“I said to them, ‘I saw that story in the paper about 2,200 parts per trillion. That seems really high to me,’” Spaniola said in a recent interview. “And in a moment of candor, one of them said to me, ‘Buddy, we got way higher than that.’”

Spaniola was discovering what hundreds of communities across the country have been learning with increasing frequency in the past decade: U.S. military installations have colossal problems with PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally, like the coatings on non-stick cookware and the compounds that resist flames in firefighting foam used by the military. The chemicals are also highly toxic, having been linked to a wide range of health problems even at very low exposures.

And in Michigan and most other states, the Department of Defense has done little to address its PFAS problems despite the millions of dollars that have been provided for cleanup work in recent defense authorization and appropriations bills. More such spending as well as a mandate to act are proposed in the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that has been passed by the House and awaits action in the Senate.

 

Since early in 2010, Spaniola had been involved with community efforts to get the DOD to clean up contamination that has spread over nearly 6 square miles, including parts of Van Etten Lake, the Au Sable River and the groundwater used by hundreds in the town of Oscoda on the shore of Lake Huron.

The toxic substances originated at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, a sprawling complex that operated for 70 years before it was designated a federal Superfund site in 1994, the year after it closed. Most of the PFAS came from heavy-duty fire suppressants known as aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used to snuff out fires and in practice drills at the base, long a training site for bomber crews.

But it took until 2010, through testing by a state environmental specialist, that PFAS was discovered in the water supplies, making Wurtsmith the first of more than 700 military sites found to be contaminated with the highly hazardous compounds.

‘Filthy 50’

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