Governor Gretchen Whitmer is hoping that a federal law will be able to help speed up Department of Defense cooperation with cleaning up contamination from per- and polyfluoralalkyl sybstances, or PFAS, in Oscoda Township near Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
In 2020, the National Defense Authorization Act included section 332. It allows a governor to request changes or an entirely new cooperative agreement over remediation at sites by PFAS as a result of DOD activities.
In a letter sent to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the governor invoked that section, asking that the DOD's cleanup of the site follow Michigan's standards for PFAS, as opposed to the federal standards.
Oday Salim is the staff attorney for the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Region. He says Michigan’s PFAS standards are more rigorous than the federal ones that the D-O-D had previously observed.
"We know that the cleanup standard to be achieved is a better one. It’s a more protective one. It’s one that’s more reflective of contemporary science. So I think that’s the hope. This is not going to resolve everything."
Salim says Whitmer's decision shows her commitment to seeing these sorts of issues through, and shows her commitment to protecting the environment in the state.
Michigan's PFAS standards establish Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs, for seven types of PFAS chemicals in drinking water, and establishes groundwater cleanup criteria as 8 parts per trillion for PFOA and 16 parts per trillion for PFOS. The EPA has not established ground or drinking water standards for PFAS. The chemical family has been linked to health issues, such as certain cancers, pregnancy-induced hypertension, ulcerative colitis, and possible effects on children's immune systems.
The residents of Oscoda Township have long been critical of the DOD's progress on cleaning up the Wurtsmith contamination site, which came from firefighting foam used by the U.S. Air Force.
U.S. Representative Dan Kildee (D-Flint), whose district includes Oscoda, said in 2019, "Despite the Defense Department knowing about this PFAS chemical contamination at Wurtsmith since 2012, the military has failed to act quickly enough to stop contamination coming from the former Air Force base. As a result, PFAS continues to leech into the ground and surface water in Oscoda."
Salim says the residents have made their dissatisfaction clear, and hopes the governor's invocation of the rule will lead to a speedier cleanup and better communication.
"The impacted communities have certainly been very dissatisfied with the DOD in terms of lack of sufficient transparency, lack of haste, and lack of respect for the state’s cleanup standards." He adds, "The DOD has to recognize that the community has been severely impacted. They need to listen more, not only to the state, but to impacted communities. They have suffered a lot, as a result of the pollution, and they are really invested in this cleanup."
The Air Force has not responded to a request for comment on the cleanup.