I-Team Report: Contaminated Waters - WNEM TV 5

I-Team Report: Contaminated Waters

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(Source: WNEM) (Source: WNEM)

Wurtsmith Air force base once stood proud as a key piece of America’s air defense system.

It was also an integral part of the Mid-Michigan community it called home for 70-years before being decommissioned in 1993.

Now closed for more than 20 years, it’s what the Wurtsmith left behind that has many who live and work in Oscoda wondering what the base’s enduring legacy will be.

“We’re in the center of that plume right here,” said Dan O’Connor, who lives near the former base.

O’Connor believes that plume can be tied directly to Wurtsmith and the foam they used to put out fires.

The foam was made from dangerous chemicals known as PFAS, chemicals that seeped into the groundwater.

O’Connor uses a four-part filter system to keep the harmful chemicals out of the well water he uses. And even though that enables him to drink the water, he’s still worried.

“We are concerned that the water we shower in, bathe in, can go through your skin and cause damage to our organs and what not. We just don’t know.”

Pictures taken on Van Etten Lake from early April show why residents might be concerned. It’s hard to miss the foam that has taken over.

Foam on the lake is bad news for Karla Wellman, whose business depends on tourism dollars, that are in part, generated from people fishing on Van Etten Lake.

“It’s probably sixty percent of our income,” Wellman said.

Wellman said visitors shy away from fishing here. That’s why she wants to see the contamination issue resolved quickly.

“More people would be coming. There wouldn’t be the stress and the pressure of don’t eat the fish for the fear of people maybe getting in water,” Wellman said.

The local schools are also being impacted.

“The concern about the migration of the plumes is a significant concern for us,” said Scott Moore, Superintendent for Oscoda Area Schools.

Moore said the Air Force helped put out two fires near the campus in 1985 and 1995, and the remnants from the firefighting foam are still around.

“We have backup water on campus ready. Bottled water all the time in the event that there is any type of sign of any type of contamination in our water.”

Moore said the administration is implementing an aggressive plan to hook up to Oscoda’s Municipal Water System.

The municipal water is not impacted by the contaminants, but not everyone in town has the means to hook up to the system.

That’s why many residents have joined the community action group called NOW.

NOW stands for “Need Our Water”.

Cathy Wusterbarth is one of the group’s co-founders. She wants to see the Air Force pay to connect all the homes affected by the contamination to the municipal water system.

She also wants to see the Air Force do more to clean-up that contamination.

“The plumes that are affecting the lake are moving and continue to flow into Van Etten Lake uninterrupted. And so, we want action from the Air Force,” Wusterbarth told TV5.

And so does the State of Michigan.

In November, Governor Snyder created the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.

He appointed Carol Issacs to run it. She said the Air Force needs to do more.

“The state is stepping in all too frequently where the Air Force is not. And that is really not the way it should be. The responsible party here is not the state, it’s the Air Force. And they need to do the right thing for these people.”

Isaacs believes the Air Force isn’t moving fast enough. She said it is the state, not the Air Force, that is planning to remove that foam from Van Etten Lake this summer.

Benjamin Marrs is the Environmental Coordinator for Wurtsmith Air Force Base. He said the Air Force is taking action. Later this year, a granulated activated carbon facility will go online at the base to treat groundwater.

“This is where the new GAC Treatment Plant is going to be built. So hopefully once the snow melts we’ll get that and we’ll have it running in the August time frame,” Marrs told TV5.

Marrs said the Air Force is also implementing a monitoring schedule for two public supply wells, and thirty-six residential wells. All in an effort to protect the water supply.

Marrs said the Air Force is following the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, which can be a lengthy process.

“We take dollars and funds from Congress that are channeled specifically for installation and restoration clean-ups. So, with that, we have to do our full due diligence.”

No matter how long it takes, O’Connor said Oscoda residents plan to do everything they can to keep this situation in the spotlight. It’s simply too important.

“If our water is good and our health is good, then we’ll be quiet. But until that time, I think we need to continue to march forward with our efforts.”

On Friday, May 18, the PFAS Action Response Team announced its plan for a $1.7 million water survey for multiple contaminated water supplies around the state. 

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