Michigan PFAS activists urge bolder action at fed hearing in East Lansing

Michigan PFAS activists urge bolder action at fed hearing in East Lansing
August 8, 2022 Bridge Michigan

By Kelly House, Bridge Michigan

The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work HERE.

  • Michigan is home to 10 military sites with known PFAS contamination, but cleanup efforts have been slow
  • Michigan regulators and activists on Monday urged feds to fund cleanup efforts, research and medical care for veterans
  • Regulators plan to release draft federal PFAS limits by year’s end

Michigan activists last week urged federal officials to take stronger, swifter action to research and regulate cancer-causing PFAS, and clean up contamination at Michigan military sites contaminated by the toxic “forever chemicals.”

At a U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Govermental Affairs Committee hearing held in East Lansing, federal military and environmental officials said they’re in the process of developing enforceable PFAS drinking water standards and cleanup plans for contaminated bases such as the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.

But state regulators and Michigan-based activists said more is needed, from support for data-gathering as researchers race to better understand PFAS, to greater investments in cleanup technologies and better coordination among federal agencies responding to the widening crisis.

And it should start, said Cathy Wusterbarth, a Oscoda-based PFAS activist and founder of the group Need Our Water, “with an apology from the Department of Defense to communities.”

Michigan is home to 10 military sites with known PFAS contamination, including the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, which became Michigan’s first known PFAS site in 2010.

A decade later, military officials in charge of PFAS response at Wurtsmith still have not developed a long-term cleanup plan for the site. Residents complain that the military continues to engage in foot-dragging and obfuscation while so frequently changing staff assigned to the cleanup that activists are continually forced to “re-educate” them.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, who chairs the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, grilled Air Force officials on the Wurtsmith cleanup, saying the crisis demands a “sense of urgency.”

During questioning, Nancy Balkus, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and infrastructure, said the military is “fully supportive” of using Michigan’s nation-leading cleanup standards at the site.

Those rules, hailed as the nation’s strongest when they took effect in 2020, lower the cleanup threshold for contaminated groundwater from 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA to 8 parts per trillion for PFOA and 16 parts per trillion for PFOS.

Further complicating efforts to contain the toxic chemicals, there are thousands of compounds that remain unregulated, even in Michigan. The federal government still lacks enforceable limits, though EPA officials said Monday they plan to release enforceable standards by the end of the year, and finalize them next year.

Exposure to “forever chemical” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS compounds, has been linked to cancer, thyroid issues and other health conditions.

Michigan has so far identified more than 240 sites contaminated by PFAS. It has seeped into groundwater across much of Michigan and been detected in the biosolids used to fertilize crops and even in the tissue of wild Lake Superior smelt.

At Wurtsmith, military officials have demurred for years as local activists and state regulators requested that it adopt Michigan’s nation-leading drinking water standards when deciding how to clean up Wurtsmith.

Beyond a full-throated commitment to meet Michigan standards, Wusterbarth said Oscoda cleanup advocates want greater transparency from military officials overseeing cleanup plans, who she said so far have demonstrated “lack of transparency, accountability, and collaboration,” including excluding the public from key cleanup discussions.

Balkus defended the Air Force’s exclusion of the public from some meetings, arguing it allows “frank and honest conversations” between the military and regulators. But Balkus committed to hosting a future “community meeting” where experts will be available to answer the public’s questions about Wurtsmith.

While the military continues to study the PFAS problem at Wurtsmith, it has installed “pump and treat” systems at numerous sites to keep contaminated groundwater from spreading further.

But the military is still years away from finalizing a long-term cleanup plan for the site. And as MLive has reported, it has claimed to be “not aware” of data showing veterans were exposed to PFAS-tainted drinking water while serving at Wurtsmith.

That irked Lt. Col. Craig Minor, a retired Air Force officer who served at Wurtsmith in the 1980s and 90s. Minor said at Monday’s hearing that he and other military officials and their families drank “egregious amounts of PFAS in the tap water, daily.”

Minor said he and his family have suffered from a host of health issues over the years, and that testing in 2019 showed dramatically elevated PFAS levels in his body.

Speaking at the hearing Monday, Minor urged military officials to immediately add PFAS to the list of illnesses the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs presumed to be caused by military service, rendering sick veterans eligible for military disability benefits without having to prove a link to their specific illness.

“If we wait for epidemiological studies to ripen, till when everybody feels great,” he said, “we do all those things and the years have passed, and no one’s left.”

While activists push for action at Wurtsmith, EPA officials said Monday they’re drafting rules that will establish an enforceable federal drinking water standard for PFAS and designate the chemicals as hazardous under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known also as the Superfund law that governs federal cleanup of contaminated sites.

Those moves come after the agency in June published a draft health advisory that lowered long-term safe exposure levels for two PFAS compounds to virtually nothing.

That was welcome news to Breanna Knudsen, a tribal environmental response program specialist with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

Because tribal people exercise treaty-protected hunting and fishing rights, they are uniquely affected by Michigan’s PFAS crisis since fish and wildlife in parts of the state are now under consumption advisories due to PFAS contamination. Knudsen said tribes rely on federal hazardous designations to force cleanups, and the current lack of federal PFAS designation is hindering those efforts.

“The hands of the tribes are tied,” Knudsen said.

The East Lansing hearing comes as Sen. Peters and other Michigan members of Congress continue to spearhead legislation that aims to strengthen the federal PFAS response.

Peters and Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, have introduced bills to expand federal PFAS research. And Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow are sponsoring bills that would cover veterans’ treatment and provide access to disability payments for illnesses linked to PFAS exposure.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

PFAS News Roundup: “Forever chemicals” in drinking water, common PFAS questions answered

EPA Warns of Health Problems When PFAS Levels in Drinking Water Are Inconceivably Tiny

Featured image: PFAS foam on a beach near the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County, Mich. (Great Lakes Now Episode 1025)


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