Fear and fury in Michigan town where Air Force contaminated water

"I always wanted to come back here, but it's like the town has been damaged by this."

Image Credit: Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

Anthony Spaniola knew something was off with his town’s water. He read accounts in the Detroit Free Press and attended community meetings hosted by state health and environment agencies. Until last summer Spaniola was concerned but didn’t think the situation was out of control.

Then he saw foam on Van Etten Lake.

The unsightly ivory-colored meringue that rimmed the shore is a visible illustration of an ongoing national health and environmental disaster related to perfluorinated compounds. PFAS, as this group of chemicals is collectively called, are used to manufacture rain-repelling, stain-deflecting, heat-resisting consumer and industrial products like Teflon skillets, Gore-Tex jackets and fire retardants. There’s a good chance that every home in America has products strengthened with one of the compounds.

Spaniola and his family own a home on the east side of Van Etten Lake, a civic centerpiece in a town, nicknamed Paddletown USA, whose economy and identity is built around northern Michigan’s natural bounty of lakes and rivers.

East of Oscoda is teal-hued Lake Huron, one of North America’s Great Lakes. To the west is the Au Sable River, renowned for its cold water trout fishery and a 120-mile canoe race every July through unbroken forest that attracts paddlers from across the U.S. and Canada.

And to the north, ringed by modest vacation cottages, recreational camps and family homes is Van Etten Lake. Summer winds naturally froth the shore, according to those who live here. But what appeared last July and August, and throughout the fall, was unusual. Spaniola described the foam as sticky.

Greg Cole, who manages the dam at the lake’s outlet, took pictures of the rumpled mass bunched against the barricade. Laboratory tests indicated worrisome concentrations of perfluorinated chemicals, at levels thousands of times higher than a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health warning for drinking water.

Some studies have found that over decades of low-level exposure in drinking water – in parts per trillion even – the chemicals are associated with a higher risk of kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, hormone disruption and other ailments. Developed for durability, they do not easily break down once set loose from the production line.

In Oscoda the source of contamination is well documented. The chemicals are flowing underground, mostly unimpeded, from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base where PFAS compounds, sprayed for decades during training exercises to extinguish petroleum fires, soaked into the groundwater. The closer regulators look, the more they find groundwater contaminated with PFAS, not just in Oscoda, but nationwide on military bases and industrial sites, and in towns that border them.

Wurtsmith’s location, a mile from Lake Huron and abutting Lake Van Etten is not exactly a hilltop. But it is one of the highest points in Oscoda. That’s a problem because water – and groundwater – runs downhill. And downhill from Wurtsmith is Van Etten Lake, which flows into Van Etten Creek, which joins with the Au Sable River before emptying into Lake Huron.

For years Wurtsmith, which closed in 1993, has been recognized as one of the most polluted places in Michigan. The EPA proposed designating the base as a national Superfund site in 1994, but it was never officially listed. The EPA withdrew its oversight in 2016, leaving the Air Force and state agencies to handle the cleanup while the town and county redeveloped parts of the base. The public library is located there, as are homes, churches, play fields, a plastics manufacturer, an airplane maintenance company and a healthcare facility.

But groundwater contamination from PFAS and other toxic substances below the new facilities spreads largely unchecked. The steady dose of chemicals into the area’s natural riches has upended lives in Oscoda. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says that people should not eat fish that live year-round in the lower Au Sable River and in Clark’s Marsh, a wetland adjacent to the base where some of the highest chemical concentrations have been measured.

Drinking water is affected, too. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has told more than two hundred households near Van Etten Lake that are on private wells not to drink their tap water. The state is providing bottled water or faucet filters, and the town is using federal grant money to extend public water to some of the homes.

But even the public water supply is at risk. Traces of the chemicals are now found downstream, in Lake Huron, the source for the regional water system. It is even in the treated water, at a few parts per trillion, that is supplied to 14,000 homes.

Current and former Oscoda residents and veterans who served at Wurtsmith have stories of odd cancers and a profusion of illnesses that have stumped doctors looking for a cause. They wonder if their ailments are connected to the relatively unstudied toxic residues in soil and water. They hope to be included in an upcoming Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assessment of PFAS exposure on military bases that could confirm or reject their fears.

After seeing the lake foam this past summer, Spaniola felt that the agencies responsible for managing the contamination were not as much in control as he had thought. “My antennae went up,” said Spaniola, a business lawyer who has immersed himself in chemical literature. “This stuff is everywhere.”

More and more people in Oscoda are coming to that conclusion. They see delays in promised cleanup actions. They read news reports from other parts of Michigan and outside the state of PFAS contamination from military bases and factories. They worry about being forgotten in the jumble. After seeing their town’s magnificent waters tarnished and neighbors getting sick, they’re starting to speak out against a system that is failing to accomplish what they want most: stopping the flow of contaminated groundwater from the base.

New activists

On a chilly evening in mid-March about 60 people file into the Oscoda VFW building to listen to a law firm’s pitch. The meeting was called by the Veterans and Civilians Clean Water Alliance, a group of about 1,800 Wurtsmith veterans and family members whose goal, according to its founder James Bussey, is to get health care coverage for people who were sickened while living on the base. The group is considering a class-action lawsuit against 3M, the company that produced the firefighting foam.

The alliance is one of several community groups that have formed in the last few years to inform residents and demand action.

Arnie Leriche, a veteran who did not serve at Wurtsmith but lives in Oscoda, lobbied the Air Force to restart a community advisory board that had been active in the decade after the base closed. The first meeting was Nov. 1, 2017, and Leriche was voted co-chair.

“The community needed to be a part of the equation,” he told Circle of Blue.


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Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies.