May 26, 2024

In 2016, Tony Spaniola received a notice informing him that his family should not drink water drawn from the well at his lake house in Oscoda, Michigan. Over the course of several decades, the Air Force collapsed thousands of liters of firefighting foam on the ground at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which closed in 1993. Those chemicals eventually leached into the soil and began to contaminate the groundwater.

Spaniola began to look at the problem in dismay. “The more I looked, the worse it got,” he said. Two years ago, his concern prompted him to found the Great Lakes PFAS Action network. The coalition of residents and activists is committed to cleaning up polluters, such as the military and a factory that makes waterproof shoes, the “forever chemicals” they left behind.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of nearly 15,000 fluorinated chemicals used since the 1950s to, among other things, make clothing and food containers oil and water repellent. They are also used in fire fighting foam. These chemicals do not break down over time, and have everything from drinking water to food. Research has linked them to cancer, heart and liver problems, developmental issues, and other ailments.

The U.S. Department of Defense, or DOD, is one of the nation’s largest users of firefighting foam and says 80 percent of active and decommissioned bases need to be cleaned. Some places, such as Wurtsmith, recorded concentrations over 3,000 times higher than what the agency previously considered safe.

Today, the EPA considers it unsafe to be exposed to virtually any amount of PFOA and PFOS, two of the most harmful substances under the PFAS umbrella. Earlier this month, it implemented the country’s first PFAS drinking water regulations, which included limiting exposure to them to the lowest detectable limit. As of April 19, the agency also has these two compounds as “hazardous substances” under the federal Super fund law, making it easier to force polluters to bear the cost of cleaning them up.

Compliance with these regulations means that almost all the 715 military sites and surrounding communities under Department of Defense scrutiny for contamination likely to require remediation. Protracted cleanup efforts at more than 100 PFAS-contaminated bases already designated as Superfund sites, such as Wurtsmith, reveal some of the challenges ahead.

“The crux of the issue is, how quickly are you going to clean it up, and what steps are you going to take in the meantime to make sure people aren’t exposed?” Spaniola said.

a health advisory sign says "do not eat deer from the advisory area.  high amounts of pfas can be found in deer and can be harmful to your health" while showing a map of the surrounding area.
A sign warning hunters not to eat deer due to high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals in their meat, in Oscoda, Michigan.
Drew YoungeDyke, National Wildlife Federation via AP

In a statement to Grist, the DOD says its plan is to follow a federal cleanup law called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, to investigate contamination and determine near- and long-term cleanup actions based on risk. But many advocates, including Spaniola, say the process is too slow and that short-term solutions have been insufficient.

The problem started decades ago. In the 1960s, the Department of Defense worked with 3M, one of the largest manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, to develop a foam called AFFF that can extinguish high-temperature fires. The PFAS acts as a surfactant, helping the material to spread more quickly. By the 1970s, every military base, naval ship, civilian airport, and fire station routinely used AFFF.

In the decades that followed, millions of liters flowed into the environment. According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, or EWG, 710 military sites known or suspected PFAS contamination throughout the country and its territories. Internal studies and memos show not long after 3M and the US Navy patented the foam in 19663M learned that its PFAS products could harm animal subjects and accumulate in the body.

In a Senate committee hearing in 2022, residents of Oscoda testify about the health impacts, such as crops and miscarriages, from the PFAS contamination at Wurtsmith. In 2023, Michigan reached a settlement after suing numerous manufacturers, including 3M and Dupont. Today there are thousands victims across the country are suing the chemical manufacturers. While some organizations and communities have sought to hold the military financially responsible for this pollution — farmers in several states recently filed lawsuits in the U.S. District Court in South Carolina to do so — the DOD says it is not legally liable.

Congressional pressure on the Pentagon to clear these sites has increased. In 2020, National Defense Authorization Acts required that phase out PFAS-laden firefighting foam by October 2023. Since the law was passed, Congress has also ordered the department to publish the findings of drinking and groundwater tests on and around bases.

Results almost showed 50 websites with extremely high levels of contamination, and hundreds more with levels above what was then the EPA’s health advisory. After further congressional pressure, the military announced plans to implement interim cleanup measures three dozen locations, including a water filtration system in Oscoda.

According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, it took an average of nearly three years for the Department of Defense to complete testing at these high-contamination sites. It took just as long to draw up cleanup plans for stopgaam. Today, 14 years after PFAS contamination was discovered at Wurtsmith, the first site tested, no site has left the “investigation” phase, and there has yet to be a comprehensive plan to begin permanent remediation on any basis .

The Department of Defense says any site found with PFAS contamination exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s previous guideline of 70 parts per trillion will receive immediate remediation, such as bottled water and filters on faucets. When a site is found to be contaminated, the EPA says, the department has 72 hours to provide residents with alternative sources of water.

Water tower near the former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, which is on the DOD’s list of the 39 most contaminated bases.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

After working on various cleanup initiatives for six years, Spaniola says waiting for the military to act took a toll on the people of Oscoda. “The community had a very good relationship with the military,” he said. “I saw it turn from a very trusting relationship to a terrible one.”

Dozens of states have imposed additional requirements to treat PFAS in municipal water systems, but such efforts often focus on private well owners. This leaves thousands of people at risk, given that in Michigan, where some 1.5 million people drink water from contaminated sources, 25 percent of residents rely on private wells.

Nationwide, the Environmental Working Group found unsafe water in wells nearby 63 military bases in 29 states. While the DOD tested private wells, it did not publish the total number of wells tested or identify which of them needed to be cleaned.

“For those who are on well water, it’s a real problem until there’s some recognition of some kind of responsibility for the contamination,” said Daniel Jones, associate director of the Michigan State University Center for PFAS Research. He is advising cleanup efforts near Grayling, Michigan. “It kind of comes down to who has deep enough pockets to pay for the things that need to be done.”

The EPA’s recent decision to designate PFOA and PFOS “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund Act is unlikely to provide quick financial assistance to communitiesthough the agency made $9 billion available for private well owners and small public water systems to address pollution. Whether that support reaches private well owners depends on individual states, which can work with local EPA offices to draft project plans under the previous apply for grants to secure funding.

The agency has established a five-year period for water systems to test for PFAS and install filtration equipment before compliance with the newly tightened levels will be enforced. While EPA says the new PFOA and PFOS regulations do not immediately trigger an investigation or qualify them as Superfund sites on the National Priority List, decisions for each site will be on a case-by-case basis.

“This is a tremendous victory for public health, it’s hugely important and it can’t come soon enough, especially for military communities that have been exposed for decades,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. Benesh hopes the new rules help push the Defense Department to move faster.

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