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AF continues sampling, launches study at former Michigan base

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- The Air Force is conducting further water sampling and launched a technological study at former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan. Both efforts are part of the Air Force-wide response to potential drinking water contamination related to the service’s fire-fighting activities.  

Nearly 200 members of the Oscoda community and Air Force representatives attended a public meeting hosted by Michigan agencies Oct. 25 to discuss the ongoing response to contamination from two perfluorinated compounds.   

The perfluorinated compounds detected at the former base are perfluorooctanoic acid , PFOA, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid , PFOS, components of Aqueous Film Forming Foam, or AFFF — the firefighting industry’s method for extinguishing fuel-based fires. The Air Force began using AFFF in the 1970s. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, issued short-term drinking water provisional health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS.  In May 2016, EPA issued new lifetime exposure drinking water health advisory for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion.    

To identify areas on the former base with likely AFFF releases, the Air Force completed a base-wide records review in early 2015; later that same year, the Air Force launched site inspections.  

In February 2016, private drinking water wells near Wurtsmith were sampled, and results were that PFOS and PFOA levels did not exceed either past provisional health advisories nor the current lifetime health advisory levels for drinking water. In May 2016, sampling of additional wells at summer homes revealed one private well that tested above the new health advisory; the Air Force immediately provided an alternate safe drinking water source and paid to connect the residence to the municipal water supply system.    

The Air Force is also working to characterize the extent of contamination, said David Strainge, base environmental coordinator for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.“Our focus right now is to understand how plumes are behaving so we can continue to protect human health.”  

Gathering data and other site information will help map contamination migration and potential pathways to drinking water, Strainge said.   

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is conducting sampling beyond the perimeter of the former base. Sample results from MDEQ and the Air Force, as well as historic base data and environmental factors, will fuel updates to a computer model. The technology will model Wurtsmith sites and allow users to run contamination scenarios, assess potential impacts and respond appropriately, said Bob Delaney, MDEQ restoration program manager.  

“What’s happening at Wurtsmith is driving response at a lot of other locations,” Delaney said. “Our work is demonstrating how to assess and respond to PFC contamination.”  

Community members voiced concerns on even trace amounts of the contaminants in drinking water may be harmful. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services environmental health lead, Kory Groetsch, reassured the community the EPA’s protective level is defensible; however MDHHS recommends residents seek an alternate water source.  

“It’s gone through the EPA and received a lot of scrutiny, said Groetsch. “The number is conservative; it allows for other PFOA and PFOS-containing substances you may come in daily contact with beyond drinking water.”  

Several community members also inquired about cleanup activities.   

While the technologies to effectively remove PFOS and PFOA are still developing, Strainge said Wurtsmith will be at the cutting edge; the Air Force has funded two remediation technology evaluations at Wurtsmith.   

The community is also taking the issue seriously; the Oscoda Township recently requested the Air Force stand up a restoration advisory board to oversee progress. The Air Force will initiate the nomination process to seat a new board.    

For more information on the Air Force’s response to PFOS and PFOA, contact AFCEC public affairs at (866) 725-7617 or afcec.pa@us.af.mil.