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Air Force Refuses to Clean PFAS Contamination at Former Michigan Base

Health + Wellness
Fire Training Area #2 at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan. Breanne Humphreys/ Air Force

The U.S. Air Force is refusing to comply with the state of Michigan's request to expand cleanup of PFAS contamination near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, MLive reported.

PFAS, or poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of controversial chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS and GenX. The substances can be found in a vast array of products, from non-stick cookware to firefighting foams, and may have found its way in the drinking water for up to 110 million Americans nationwide.


In Michigan, there are 40 known sites, including active and former military bases, that have confirmed PFOA and PFOS in groundwater. Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) became aware of PFAS contamination at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base way back in March 2010 after sampling confirmed its presence at a fire training area on the base.

So in October as MLive's Garret Ellison reported, the MDEQ issued a violation notice to the U.S. Air Force for "far exceeding the 12 nanograms per liter PFOS water quality standard" in areas near Clark's Marsh, which borders the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base where personnel had used PFAS-containing firefighting foam for fire training exercises.

The Air Force's response? They wrote back in a Dec. 7, 2018 letter saying the state that doesn't have the authority to regulate federal facilities.

A senior Air Force official said MDEQ "lacks the jurisdictional authority" to force compliance.

The federal government "has not waived sovereign immunity with regard to the state regulation on which the (violation notice) is premised," the official continued, adding that the Air Force "is hereby informing you that it will not be taking any new remedial actions at this time."

Basically, as Ellison tweeted, "The Air Force is telling Michigan to take its 12-ppt regulatory limit on PFAS in surface water and shove it."

This exchange is the latest in a years-long saga between Michigan and the Air Force ever since PFAS was detected at Wurtsmith in 2010.

The chemicals have since spread to ground and surface water, Clark's Marsh, the AuSable River and is now threatening Lake Huron, according to The Detroit News.

Although the Air Force has installed filtration devices and monitoring wells around the area, it has been slow to take full responsibility of the contamination, the publication said.

PFAS exposure has been linked to linked to "adverse human health effects," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says, adding that tests have showed they can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals.

The news comes as Trump administration reportedly refuses to limit such toxic chemicals in drinking water.

The Air Force has not issued a comment on the reports from MLive and The Detroit News.

MDEQ spokesperson Scott Dean told MLive the agency is aiming for a "full remedy" in Oscoda.

"The slow response by the Air Force to the Wurtsmith contamination is having an increasingly negative impact on the people, wildlife and environment in Oscoda," he said. "Although Michigan seeks to work cooperatively with the Air Force, slow response to PFAS contamination is not acceptable."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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