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

Defense spending bill includes a mandate to act on contaminated sites

A sunrise on Lake Huron, seen from Oscoda, Mich.
A sunrise on Lake Huron, seen from Oscoda, Mich. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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.

[Related: ‘Forever chemical’ response may push costs to water utilities]

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.

Attorney Anthony Spaniola with his son on Van Etten Lake in Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Spaniola)

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’

Wurtsmith is among the worst of those sites, part of a group dubbed the “Filthy 50” by environmentalists and members of Congress, yet getting the Defense Department to clean up the mess has been an excruciatingly slow and painful process.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., co-chair of the ​​Congressional PFAS Task Force that was formed in response to the activism in Oscoda, described his efforts to force a DOD cleanup as “frustrating” and “exasperating.”

Kildee and other Michigan Democrats, including Reps. Debbie Dingell and Elissa Slotkin and Sen. Gary Peters, pushed Congress to provide $175 million to address PFAS in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, and the 2023 NDAA that’s been passed by the House has a provision that would force the Pentagon to adhere to the “most stringent” PFAS standards, whether they be federal or state — language born out of DOD’s refusal to follow Michigan’s stricter limits on PFAS.

“I shouldn’t even have to write a memo, let alone pass legislation, that requires the DOD to adhere to state and federal requirements,” Kildee said. “[DOD] should do it just as a matter of moral obligation.”

For at least a decade before Wurtsmith was shut down, AFFF was not only sprayed on the grounds but also stored in leaky tanks and dumped in grassy areas off the runways, “only 500 yards upstream in the aquifer from the main drinking water wells,” said retired Air Force officer Craig Minor, who was stationed at Wurtsmith in the mid-1980s and now says he and his family have serious health problems.

At an August hearing in Michigan of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Peters, Minor said he was hospitalized for a prostate issue while at Wurtsmith, and then a tumor formed not long afterward. His son was born with severe cerebral palsy and microcephaly, and his wife miscarried their next child, he said.

It wasn’t until years later that they discovered that health conditions like theirs were connected to being exposed to groundwater that contained up to 43,000 parts per trillion of PFAS. 

“Today, my liver and spleen are enlarged and my kidneys are low-functioning,” Minor testified at the hearing. “It is now 40 years since Wurtsmith citizens began drinking PFAS from AFFF at egregious amounts.”

No plan yet

Nearly 13 years after the PFAS was discovered, the Defense Department has yet to implement a cleanup plan.

In 2016, the Air Force announced it was voluntarily complying with what the EPA called a lifetime health advisory, a suggested but unenforceable maximum for PFAS exposure, of 70 parts per trillion. 

By that time, the “zone of concern” for PFAS-contaminated drinking water covered hundreds of homes near the retired base. The Air Force has denied responsibility for nearly all the tainted wells, forcing the state to provide bottled water or under-the-sink reverse osmosis filters. To date, an Air Force spokesman said it has provided only one household with alternative drinking water, at a cost of $4,600. 

Meanwhile, the spokesman said the DOD is still performing studies and identifying solutions in what it calls the “remedial investigation phase,” expected to be completed by late 2023. Then, the spokesman said, the department will need to perform a feasibility study, propose a cleanup plan, provide 30 days for public comment and finalize the decision. It is likely to be several more years before Oscoda sees the start of real cleanup work.

The Defense Department also has said it lacks funding for a cleanup expected to cost at least $239 million in Oscoda, although that figure could rise as EPA tightens its PFAS regulations. 

Congress is ready to provide the funds, Kildee said. DOD just has to give a number, which it has been slow to do in the past.

“Let’s face it, the Defense Department has never been reluctant when it comes to asking for money,” he said. “We have significantly increased the amount of money available for cleanup — it’s been driven by Congress … but they shouldn’t need to be persuaded by Congress” to ask for funding.

Friend to foe

Community leaders like Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network that is working to address PFAS contamination at military bases throughout the region, say DOD is dragging its feet.

Oscoda is a working-class town with many retired military, “a natural constituent of the Pentagon,” Spaniola said. “It’s a very patriotic, small Northern Michigan American community, and they were sad when the base closed. But there was a very good relationship there, and it turned to just outright hostility. I didn’t think I’d ever see anything quite like it, and it was all DOD-inspired.” 

This summer, the EPA updated its lifetime health advisory and lowered the acceptable threshold of some PFAS in drinking water from 70 parts per trillion to as low as .004 ppt, levels the Air Force says it cannot achieve.

Nancy Balkus, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and infrastructure, said at the Senate hearing that the new levels are lower than current methods can detect, meaning it cannot comply with the new limits. 

“We’re only able to test down to 4 parts per trillion,” she said. “And it’s very difficult to determine a clean water source if we can only test down to 4.”

That does not bode well for other military sites around the country with high levels of PFAS. According to a DOD spokesman, there are 702 military installations across the country that require a PFAS assessment. Although the majority belong to the Air Force, there’s also contamination at other bases, including those run by the National Guard.

The spokesman said the department is “committed to fulfilling our cleanup responsibilities, operating within the law and authorities provided by the federal cleanup law, and clearly communicating and engaging with communities.” 

But Spaniola said he believes DOD is doing all it can to cut cleanup costs in Oscoda because it will set a precedent for its contaminated sites elsewhere.

Kildee agrees. “If it were not for the community being persistent, as well as myself and my Senate colleagues being persistent, I don’t believe that even those steps that were inadequate would have been taken,” he said.

The Pentagon also has not yet released a congressionally mandated report, which was due in May, detailing the cleanup status of the so-called Filthy 50.

“I think that [DOD] thinks they have a public relations issue,” Spaniola said, “and they certainly do. But they also have a substance issue, and I believe that there’s an opportunity to make Wurtsmith a national showcase so that someone higher up in command will seize on that opportunity.”

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