Residents near an abandoned military base in Michigan are worried about an unseen invader: toxic chemicals that have contaminated wells in the town of Oscoda. Now the chemicals are spreading farther -- and have even reached Lake Huron.
For decades, Wurtsmith Air Force base was an important part of the nation’s air defenses. Troops stationed there were trained to fly everything from F-86 fighter jets to B-52 bombers.
They also trained to fight fires -- an important role on a base where lots of aviation fuel was stored.
Dale Corsi, a consultant for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, points to where a couple of wells are sticking up out of the snow and says that is where the fire training area used to be. There’s a concrete slab there now.
But Corsi says for years fire fighting foams would have ended up directly in the soil. “And this soil here is sand, very porous, ground water flows out here at incredibly fast rates.”
Corsi says the foam would have started leeching out across the township.
And that’s a problem, he says, because the chemicals are showing up in residential wells. “At first we found about sixty of them that were right close to the base.”
Robert Delaney of the Environmental Protection Agency oversees remediation efforts for the Air Force here. He says that at first the agency only found about 60 contaminated wells.
Now as many as 300 wells have tested positive for low-level PFCs, a chemical used in the fire fighting foams.
The impact of PFCs on human health isn’t clear. But research has found troubling signs, Delaney says.
“Some of the biggest concerns are developmental effects on the fetus," he says. "They’ve been tied back to high cholesterol and hypothyroidism or thyroid disease, they’re linked to a variety of diseases where people have had high exposures.”
That has led state and local officials to take action.
They’re drilling around the area to see how far the chemicals have spread. And they’re urging residents using wells to find alternative water sources, even though only one well so far has tested over the EPA guidelines.
Denise Bryan is with the District Health Department, which oversees Oscoda. She says they have been working to switch residents over to municipal water.
“The next question is well what are we going to do about it in a proactive manner," she says. "Why would we wait for us to have groundwater that exceeds the U.S. EPA standards?”
She says funding has already come through to help residents get filtration systems or tap into municipal water. But as the contamination spreads, some homeowners may have to spend thousands to get access to municipal water.
That doesn’t seem fair to David Ohmer, who lives in the area.
“It’s disappointing when you can’t drink your own water and it hurts," he says. "It’s long overdue and the government, the air force, should take care of it.”
The Air Force has already responded to help the homeowner whose well registered above EPA levels. But it’s not helping others connect to municipal water.
Still, Oscoda could hold lessons for other contaminated areas. The Air Force says as many as 200 active and retired bases across the country may have used the same firefighting foams.
No matter how the Air Force responds, state and local health departments plan to move ahead with getting residents connected.
Corsi says, “If they say no, we’ll probably still keep moving forward. But we’re not going to wait for the Air Force to say, ‘Okay, we’ll do it now,’ because people are drinking water that they shouldn’t be drinking and we have to fix that problem.”
It will take at least a month for the results of the latest water tests to come back. In the meantime Corsi says state and local officials will do everything they can to make sure residents have clean water.