Feds Take Steps to Clean Up Chemicals at Former Michigan Air Force Base

The Wurtsmith Air Force Base was decommissioned in 1993. (Mike Fritcher via Flickr)

By Kyle Kaminski

August 24, 2023

The US Air Force promised to take immediate action to mitigate groundwater contamination at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County. State leaders and activists think it’s an important—but long overdue—step to protect the community.

MICHIGAN—Officials at the US Department of Defense this month announced plans to help curb chemical contamination at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda—including new efforts to prevent PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” from spreading to nearby waterways.

US Air Force Under Secretary William LaPlante last week said the Air Force plans to take two “significant new actions” to expedite cleanup efforts at the former military base, which was in operation from 1923-1993 and is among hundreds of PFAS-contaminated sites in Michigan.

The big-ticket items included in this month’s announcement: 

The federal government plans to install two more groundwater treatment systems to stop PFAS-contaminated groundwater from flowing from Wurtsmith to nearby Van Etten Lake.

“Implementation of these new interim actions is a step in the right direction for the Wurtsmith community,” LaPlante said in a statement. “We also recognize there is still more work to do.”

PFAS—or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances—have been used for decades in products ranging from nonstick cookware to stain-resistant clothing and food containers, as well as foam used to extinguish jet fuel fires. They’re known as “forever chemicals” because some don’t degrade naturally, and are believed capable of lingering indefinitely in the environment.

According to the CDC, over 95% of the US population has PFAS in their bodies. While research is ongoing, there is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the accelerated cleanup is a result of a years-long effort by state, federal, and local leaders who pushed for “decisive action” to protect the local community.

“I am grateful to everyone who fought so hard to get this done,” Whitmer said in a statement. “Every Michigander in every community deserves clean air, safe water, and a healthy community. Today’s decision to actively tackle PFAS in Oscoda will make a real difference.”

State agencies reportedly became aware of the PFAS contamination at Wurtsmith in 2010. Over the last three years, Whitmer has repeatedly reached out to the federal government amid efforts to get the Air Force to fully comply with new state standards for PFAS contamination. 

The Air Force has since committed to addressing PFAS as quickly as possible under federal cleanup laws—which enable the military to take rapid action in order to prevent PFAS from migrating into local groundwater from current and former Air Force bases.

“This is an important—and long overdue—step for Wurtsmith,” said Tony Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. “It is fitting that Wurtsmith is the first place that the policy is being implemented, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to get additional interim remedies implemented with deliberate speed at Wurtsmith and other military installations.”

In 2019, Whitmer issued an executive order to establish the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, which is dedicated to identifying and mitigating contamination statewide. Since the team was established, all public water supplies have been tested in Michigan, and a total of 262 locations—including Wurthsmith—were identified as areas of PFAS contamination in Michigan.

Whitmer also signed an executive order in 2021 that stopped the state from buying non-essential products that contain PFAS—like office furniture, carpet, and sanitary supplies.

READ MORE: Michiganders Urge Lawmakers to Take More Action on PFAS

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Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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