OSCODA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — In the year since the Wolverine Worldwide PFAS crisis started in northern Kent County, the likely carcinogen has turned up in hundreds of wells and in the blood of some residents.
It has led to 100 lawsuits alleging cancer, miscarriages, even three deaths.
But 200 miles away, the state’s very first PFAS scare is something that can be seen — PFAS foam forming on a lake and a stream.
The state found PFAS at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in 2010. It came from foam used by firefighters to put out jet fuel fires decades ago.
Eight years later, the state still doesn’t know how far it has spread. Residents, some with contaminated wells, are frustrated.
“You can see it floating down the creek here,” Dale Corsi, a consultant working for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said as he pointed out white foam roiling in a creek near the former air base.
The PFAS foam was first discovered last summer on Van Etten Lake, across the street from the old air base in Oscoda, an area along Lake Huron that relies on tourism — swimming, boating, fishing.
“This is what we see on the lake when it’s windy,” Corsi showed Target 8. “You’ll see these little bubbles and they’ll kind of coalesce into, I’ll call them pads of foam. And when they hit shore, they start accumulating and piling up.”
It mounds up to a foot deep, he said, until a wind rolls it up onto the beach.
It’s ripe with PFAS — up to 160,000 parts per trillion. If it were drinking water, that would be 2,300 times the state’s legal limit.
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It’s scaring residents, who want it gone before summer.
“If this white sticky foam is there and your child jumps into it, do you want your child in that water?” resident Martha Gottlieb asked during a recent PFAS meeting in Oscoda Township.
The state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are studying if PFAS foam is safe to swim in.
“We don’t know of a magic bullet on how you address that foam,” DEQ specialist Robert Delaney said. “This foam issue is starting to turn up at other places. Just nobody was aware of it.”
In Kent County, the PFAS came from Scotchgard used by Wolverine to treat shoes. The shoemaker dumped its sludge, which contained PFAS, in landfills and on farm fields decades ago.
In Oscoda, the contamination dates goes back to the 1970s, when air base firefighters started using PFAS-laced foam to put out fuel fires. They trained with it; used it to snuff a fire after an Air Force tanker plane crashed and killed six at the base in 1988; used it in the 1980s to help locals put out a forest fire off the base — 13 “hot spots” in all, some hotter than others.
Wurtsmith closed 25 years ago and is now an industrial park and private airfield.
In 2010, the DEQ tested the base and found PFAS. Two years later, the state found it in off-the-chart levels in fish from nearby Clark’s Marsh.
“At the time that was the highest we could find in literature,” Corsi said.
It led to “do not eat” warnings in 2012.
“You’re not even supposed to eat even one of those fish,” Delaney said. “So what it does is it magnifies up in the fish.”
It’s also contaminated fish, at lower levels, in nearby Van Etten Lake.
“Who knows what’s in them fish,” resident Ross Tingley said during the community PFAS meeting. “I would like to go out there fishing tomorrow. I don’t dare go out there. Hell, I don’t know what’s in those fish. I mean, they look good but are they good? I don’t know.”
Two years ago, tests found PFAS in wells of nearby homes, mostly at low levels. It’s not nearly as bad, or as widespread, as the PFAS in wells in Kent County’s Plainfield and Algoma townships.
“Every site is so different,” DEQ spokeswoman Sue Leeming said. “One of the things in Rockford is we have a very large population in a dense area, people close together. Here, it’s more rural. Those are differences. It doesn’t make the problem different, it makes how we address it different.”
In Oscoda, the Air Force agreed to hook up two homes to city water — the only two that were over the EPA advisory limit for PFAS — while the state paid for filters at others.
Wolverine has installed expensive whole-house filters in 460 homes in Kent County, including many with lower levels of PFAS, but it hasn’t agreed to extend city water to hard-hit areas.
“They’re in the private sector, so they can do things a little bit different,” said Matt Marrs, the Air Force’s environmental coordinator for Wurtsmith.
An advisory board of state, local and Air Force leaders, along with residents, meets regularly to not just hash out who to blame, but also how to clean it up. That includes a $3 million treatment plant that is already sucking PFAS out of the groundwater.
But residents complain the Air Force and state aren’t doing enough.
“Now this is still going on, nothing’s being accomplished,” Tingley said during the recent advisory board meeting. “I mean, what it’s been, three or four years since we’ve been discussing this? I ain’t seen nothing done.”
Just like with the Wolverine contamination, the state still hasn’t found how far Wurtsmith’s PFAS has spread.
“We’re trying to figure out where’s the end of this thing?” the DEQ’s Delaney said at the recent advisory board meeting.
Residents with contaminated wells want more tests.
“It’s kind of difficult right now because even when they test it, the chemical moves, so they don’t know whether we’re at the beginning of the plume, the middle of the plume or the end of the plume,” said Gottlieb, who’s using a filter after her well tested positive for low levels of PFAS.
There’s even debate — still — about who’s responsible for what at Wurtsmith.
“As far as the foam (on the lake) is concerned, as of right now, the Air Force doesn’t see an applicable law that applies to that foam or to that surface water,” Air Force consultant Paul Rekowski said during the recent meeting.
The DEQ recently cited the Air Force for not moving quickly enough to install a second treatment plant.
“We are working hard at this to do our best,” the DEQ’s Leeming said. “We’re in the community, and I know it’s not quick answers and easy answers, but we are passionately working on this. I can guarantee you that.”
RESOURCES FOR PLAINFIELD AND ALGOMA TOWNSHIP RESIDENTS:
If you are eligible for a whole-house water filtration system from Wolverine Worldwide, you can call 616.866.5627 or email HouseStreet@wwwinc.com.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Environmental Assistance Center can be reached at 1.800.662.9278.
Websites with additional information on the contamination:
- Plainfield Township
- Kent County Health Department
- Water testing interactive map
- Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
- Michigan PFAS Action Response Team
- Varnum PFAS Contamination updates Facebook group
- Wolverine Worldwide