Top Air Force leaders address Wurtsmith Water Concerns

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  • By Malcolm McClendon

“The Air Force is absolutely committed to the health and safety of our Airmen, their families, and the communities where we serve today and where we served in the past,” said Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy, John Henderson, during a visit to the former Wurtsmith Air Force base, here, April 24, 2019. 

Henderson met with community leaders and residents to discuss the Air Force’s response to drinking water contamination at the former air force base caused by perfluoroctane sulfonate and perfuorooctanic acid, two components of aqueous film forming foam used by the Air Force, and civilian airports, to combat petroleum-based fire.

Before its closure in 1993, Wurtsmith had many roles to include a strategic bomber wing housing B-52s, and like any other base with a flying mission, it trained Air Force firefighters to extinguish aircraft fires to save lives and property. From 1970 until the base closure, the Airmen used the AFFF foam to train and, in one instance, used to douse the flames and save the lives of 10 passengers when a KC-135 Stratotanker crashed on the runway.

Repeated use and discharge of AFFF foam led to the contaminants seeping into the groundwater. Now that the EPA set a lifetime health advisory to address these chemicals, the Air Force is taking aggressive measures at Wurtsmith to ensure the community has safe drinking water and find long-term solutions to the contamination.

“We didn’t do this in neglect or violation of environmental laws; for a lot of years we all understood this to be a safe product [AFFF] and used it in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and use the CERCLA process to guide us through any potential clean-ups.” Henderson told residents and local leaders.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, is a federally mandated process all federal agencies must follow when responding to a contaminant. It ensures all steps are taken to fully identify the extent of contamination and find the best solution.

Henderson said he empathized with local officials who expressed concerns about the length of the process and asked for patience explaining that the engineering and investigations needed to get to the best solution take time.

“We acknowledge this is a slow process, but we have to fully understand the extent of the issue to ensure our solutions are the right ones,” Henderson said. “We’re committed to not only resolving this here, but everywhere. We are addressing 190 sites across the Air Force and getting after this as fast as we can.”

Henderson has visited several Air Force bases with similar PFOS/PFOA contamination and recognizes communication as a key factor between the local communities and the Air Force. During this visit, he took time to recognize the former Wurtsmith AFB Restoration Advisory Board, which consists of community, local and state government, and Air Force members. It gives the community a direct link to the remediation efforts at the former base.

“I want to thank the people who volunteer to be a part of the RAB,” Henderson said. “This body is absolutely essential to provide us feedback on the actions we’re taking and to get that information out to the community, so that there’s transparency to all.”

RAB community co-chair, Arnie Lariche said he appreciated the visit and was glad to hear Air Force officials are listening.

“They are the ones that can make the big decisions and budget requests, so it’s very important they’re here,” Lariche said. “We believe this is the right level of involvement we’ve been hoping for.”

U.S. Senator for Michigan, Gary Peters, who joined Secretary Henderson for the visit, said it also shows the Air Force’s level of commitment.

“The fact that the Assistant Secretary is out here seeing it first hand is an important step and shows commitment to getting it done,” Peters said. “I believe the Air Force is working on this diligently; the secretary made a commitment to move as fast as the science and engineering allows him, and I will take him on his word.”

At a public Q&A at the end of the visit, Henderson once again pledged his commitment to the community.

“We appreciate the team work with Congress, with Senator Peters, other federal agencies and the Administration, because this is actually bigger than the Air Force and requires a whole-of-government solution,” Henderson said. “The Air Force has been part of this community for almost a century and will continue to be part of this community, and together we will see these challenges through.”