PFAS: Military bases in Michigan deal with national contamination concern

PFAS: Military bases in Michigan deal with national contamination concern

Source:, July 29, 2019
By: Mikenzie Frost

Contaminated drinking water in the Great Lakes State is unfortunately nothing new; the Flint Water Crisis put the national spotlight on clean water but lead isn’t the only problem Michigan’s water supply is facing.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been found in dozens of communities, dotting the map of Michigan. The substances, a group of more than 100 chemicals, were made in the 1930’s out of necessity. The strong bonds made them desirable, and useful for heat and water resistance. The substances are found in certain types of firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, food packaging and even some shoes.

The strong bond in the man-made chemicals also means they don’t break down easily in the body, and that is causing concern.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that some of the chemicals can stay in the human body for nearly a decade. Because PFAS were so widely used at one time, most Americans have some level in their bodies. No proven negative health impacts have been linked to PFAS exposure, though studies are ongoing.

Dealing with PFAS isn’t new for Michigan, especially around military bases. The decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, on the east side of the state, has been dealing with the contamination concerns since at least 2010. Elevated levels of PFAS in the water caused the state to issue a do-not-eat order for deer near the area and a do-not-eat warning for fish coming from Van Etten Lake after PFAS-laden foam was found washing ashore. Van Etten Lake is just a few miles away from Lake Huron.

The Department of Defense used a firefighting foam, known as AFFF, that has two types of PFAS – PFOA and PFOS. The military has started phasing out use of the toxic substance and is currently researching a safer alternative that’s also effective.

In 2018, a defense department report showed the military knows about at least 401 sites that have or could have PFAS contamination. New worries were raised when areas of concern were found at the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base in 2018.

The issue of cleanup for the military sites is tangled in politics as several regulations and standards are woven into other federal agencies. The military cleans sites based on a standard that does not include PFAS. Meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per billion for PFAS in drinking water and is currently looking at an enforceable drinking water standard.

The issue sparked congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, with some of Michigan’s congressional delegation leading the way in a bipartisan way. Congressman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, held a hearing in fall 2018 looking for answers from the military after he said the issues in Battle Creek were known.

“When you say you’re going to be fair and open and transparent, and now we learn that for months you sat on information that Fort Custer was considerably higher than the minimum standard for PFAS,” Upton said.

About a month later, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, held another PFAS hearing in D.C. He wanted to know what the federal government’s role will be in the cleanup efforts. Peters has also been at the forefront of pushing the EPA to set a standard.

“As we try to clean up these sites, you’ve got to have standards in place so we can’t wait any longer,” Peters said. “I’m going to be pushing them [EPA] to come up with them as quickly as possible.”

Meantime, Congressman Dan Kildee, D-Flint, spearheaded a PFAS Task Force in D.C. to ensure the focus stays on cleanup and standards within Washington’s federal agencies. Kildee also pushed for more federal funding in the House to work on PFAS cleanup.

“I think we are in a position where Congress has to take the lead,” Kildee said.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer isn’t waiting on the federal government to act. She continued the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, MPART, when taking over from former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2019 and directed her state agencies to start the process of setting a statewide drinking water standard.

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