OSCODA, MI – The Michigan State Housing Development Authority wanted to build modular housing and Oscoda Township officials thought they had a perfect spot. Along Skeel Avenue, next to the senior living complex, was 8.3 acres of empty land where visiting officers were once quartered when the property was part of Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
The state was offering a $196,000 five-year loan to get the project off the ground. Kalitta Air, a cargo airline that operates from the former base, offered $10,000 to help. The airline, the largest local employer, has struggled to recruit skilled technicians willing to relocate to northeast Michigan due to a severe shortage of workforce housing.
But the state had a problem. The property sits atop groundwater tainted by PFAS, a family of persistent organic pollutants left behind by the Air Force. State officials didn’t like the optics of building atop pollution and told the township to find another spot – off the base.
Last spring, MSDHA rescinded its offer.
“They didn’t want their project on Wurtsmith or associated with the contamination,” said Dave Schaeffer, who was superintendent of Oscoda Township during negotiations. “The property is on municipal water and there’s no threat from the contamination.”
“But as soon as people hear ‘Wurtsmith,’ that’s what they think.”
To community leaders in Oscoda, the state’s refusal to build on the former base is a frustrating example of the difficulties that a “forever chemical” problem like PFAS creates in an area that already faces economic hurdles.
Residents of Oscoda, Michigan, have been fighting for the U.S. Air Force to clean up their water table after the use of AFFF – a fire fighting foam used on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base during the Cold War and Gulf War – has seeped PFAS into their lakes, rivers and groundwater. Mike Mulholland | MLive.com
The contamination was found about 12 years ago, in 2010, by some eagle-eyed state scientists. It marked the start of a new, unwelcome chapter in a pollution story that people thought was finally over. Remedial efforts at Wurtsmith date back decades and cleanup managers thought they were almost done at the base. Instead, they learned that contaminants few knew existed had actually been invading aquifers people tapped for drinking water, as well as lakes and rivers that visitors used to boat, swim and fish.
Since then, the PFAS problem has become an economic and social burden from which there appears to be no end in sight. Hotel owners say it drives cancellations. Realtors say it tanks housing deals. Residents worry about how it may impact their property values. Elected officials call it a time suck that’s raising utility and infrastructure costs. And few, if any, are satisfied with the pace at which the Air Force is cleaning up the problem.
A 2018 state of Michigan map showing the extent of PFAS pollution in the Oscoda area. (Michigan EGLE)
In the meantime, the pollution has become an albatross around the neck of taxpayers and local government, which, among others things must cobble together grants to pay for new water mains. The township – which struggles with its own internal dysfunctions – must, nonetheless, battle the Air Force on simple matters such as getting paid for the federal government’s use of its storm sewer system to discharge huge amounts of treatment water.
Oscoda Area Schools now spends $30,000 annually in water bills it wouldn’t otherwise need to were the groundwater under the district complex not polluted. The district dropped $123,000 connecting to the Huron Shores Regional Utility Agency supply in 2018 without any help from the Air Force, which claims no responsibility.
Directly or indirectly, few aspects of local life are not touched somehow.
“Other than the base closing, there’s not another public issue that has gripped our community like PFAS has,” said Scott Moore, Oscoda Area Schools superintendent. “This issue has definitely been the one that I can recall as having the most impact.”
PFAS foam on the shores of Van Etten Lake.
A legacy of the Cold War
The Oscoda PFAS issue has become known far beyond northern Michigan in recent years.
In activism circles, Wurtsmith is symbolic as one of the very first U.S. military site where the contaminants were discovered. The first groundwater treatment system on base came online in 2015 as a pilot project several years before others of its kind were built elsewhere. In Michigan, its profile got a major boost in 2017 when a severe case of similar pollution about 140 miles southwest near Grand Rapids sparked a major drinking water crisis.
The contamination came from a chemical-based firefighting foam known by the acronym AFFF, which the Air Force used liberally in training and some emergencies, such as plane crashes, forest fires and structure fires around the community. In Oscoda, and hundreds of other military sites around the globe, the foam long ago seeped into the groundwater and created huge plumes that weren’t discovered until years later.
There’s broad agreement that the Air Force needs to clean up its mess in Oscoda, but not everyone is paddling with the same vigor toward that destination.
A demolition pile at the old Fire Training Area No. 2 concrete pad at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich., on April 22, 2021. The pad was once used to train firefighters with AFFF, a PFAS-based fire suppressant foam that has contaminated the groundwater and nearby surface water. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)
The area is heavily reliant on tourism and some question the overall severity of the PFAS pollution, saying it’s localized to “one small pond” or a “private lake” that few visitors use – certainly nothing that impacts important natural features like the Au Sable River or Lake Huron, even though the data around that actually isn’t so clear cut.
The overall threat level is a contentious point for some. In Oscoda, the poison levels in most private wells haven’t reached extreme levels. The Air Force has connected one home to municipal water because tests exceeded the federal action level of 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt) for two compounds, PFOS and PFOA. That and extension of mains has mitigated some, but certainly not all, of the local exposure.
Because of that, consumption of contaminated fish and wildlife, and skin contact with toxic surfactant foam from lakes receiving high loads of polluted groundwater have become the primary focus of regulators and a local restoration advisory board (RAB).
A national forest wetland complex between the base and the Au Sable River called Clark’s Marsh is a major focus area. The marsh has been under a Do Not Eat fish advisory since 2012. In 2018, that advisory expanded to deer. A year later, it was applied to all marsh wildlife.
Clark’s Marsh, a national forest wetland that is heavily contaminated with PFAS, is just south of the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. (Mike Mullholland | MLive.com)
On the other end of the base, high strength plumes are seeping into Van Etten Lake and reconstituting into toxic surfactant foam along the shoreline. The foam, which health officials advise people to avoid, is blight on the water body that angers many residents.
Under pressure from Congress, the Air Force is designing stopgap systems to curb pollutants entering the marsh and the lake this year while larger remedial investigations continue.
Nonetheless, some see minimal overall risk.
“I don’t think there’s any more health threat here,” said Dean Wiltse, owner of several local businesses but most notably, Wiltse’s Brewpub, located down the road from the base.
Wiltse was involved in some initial efforts to redevelop property on the former Strategic Air Command base, which closed in 1993 following the Cold War. The loss of 4,300 military personnel and 700 civilians devastated the local economy. The population of Iosco County, where Oscoda is located, fell by about 9.5 percent nearly overnight.
Redevelopment of the 7-square-mile complex, with 1,200 buildings, was a daunting task that required hundreds of demolitions, business recruitment for property reuse and lots of negotiations with the Air Force for “transitional aid” to civilian use.
“Everybody is aware of our problem because we were on the front end and an immense amount of money and resources were spent to see if there was a problem here,” Wiltse said. Does that equate to higher risk? “I would say, no. Absolutely not.”
Aircraft await maintenance at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich. The property is used by Kalitta Air, a cargo airline with its maintenance headquarters at the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport. The base water tower still bears the Wurtsmith Strategic Air Command logo. The base closed in 1993. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)
‘Why bring this out at a parade?’
If only that were true, say experts.
“No one has measured the risk and health impacts from the base,” said Bob Delaney, a former site manager retired from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) who became something of a whistleblower on PFAS in Michigan several years ago after writing a prescient report in 2012 warning of their likely prevalence.
Delaney, who ordered the first PFAS testing in Oscoda, said the Air Force has successfully “avoided discussion on what studies are necessary” to determine how the contamination has affected the lives of veterans and Oscoda community members.
“To now declare there is no higher risk here in spite of the fact that fish and wildlife, surface water and foam are extremely contaminated, along with some people still drinking contaminated groundwater, is wishful thinking,” he said.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is still in the early stages of a formal assessment of PFAS exposure in Oscoda that may involve some blood testing. The state has been eyeing Oscoda for an exposure assessment for several years. Local activists have long-sought such an evaluation, watching, frustrated, as health officials study other communities where the contamination was discovered more recently.
Does Oscoda get overlooked when it comes to resources and regulatory attention? “Always,” said activist Cathy Wusterbarth, co-founder of NOW (Need Our Water).
“It’s pretty frustrating that our area can be so highly-contaminated, and people don’t recognize that,” said Wusterbarth, a dietician and local mental health case manager. She has become a leading PFAS activist in Michigan who has traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby Congress to both strengthen regulations on PFAS and lean on the Department of Defense.
The NOW group’s advocacy has shown some results – particularly on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, both Democrats, have responded by dragging senior Air Force leaders to Oscoda for townhall meetings and helping secure funding for stopgap cleanup measures while project managers slow-walk the broader remedial process.
But NOW’s efforts haven’t always been totally welcomed by those who question whether raising the pollution issue’s profile does more harm than good. Many worry about stigmatizing the area in the minds of tourists who might think twice about visiting. Activists angered some members of the local convention and visitors bureau a couple years ago when they donned NOW T-shirts and marched in the Fourth of July parade.
Handing out brochures with information about PFAS at local summer festivals? Also a big no-no.
Wusterbarth said she’s asked neighbors on Cedar Lake north of town for permission to test foam on their beach and has been denied and ignored.
“People are so afraid of it affecting their property values,” she said.
Media attention on the issue isn’t universally welcomed, either. Reporters received a cold reception at Wellman’s Party and Bait shop in April, where managers declined to comment.
Ann Richards, a realtor and recently elected Oscoda Township supervisor, said she gets frustrated when people call with concerns about local real estate after reading about the contamination in the news. She doesn’t think PFAS defines the area.
“Oscoda Township is far more than just a PFAS contamination site,” said Richards. “We are a community that has a great school system and great natural resources. We all live and love it here and want our community to grow and have economic development.”
“Trying to label us as a contaminated brownfield site is probably not a good idea,” she said.
A health advisory sign regarding the possible presence of PFAS foam is posted near the shore of Van Etten Lake in Oscoda. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)
Tim Kellstrom says there is nothing for tourists to fear.
Kellstrom, who rents tents and boats through several businesses and is a local visitors bureau board member, sees little impact on the tourism economy from the PFAS and is encouraged by a 2020 summer that was, by all accounts, the busiest in years for many businesses as people fled downstate cities for vacation homes up north during the pandemic.
“We have to watch what’s said here and how it’s said,” he said.
“What good does it do to educate the guy right now in Grand Rapids that’s coming to our resorts about an issue that affects a small number of locals?” Kellstrom said.
“We would we bring this out at a local parade?”
At Cole’s Cottages on Van Etten Lake, owner Greg Cole says business also picked up last summer at his rental cottages due to pandemic travel – a welcome turnaround from a decline in bookings during prior years he attributes to concerns about the lake.
Cole, who is active with NOW, posts information about PFAS in his cottage kitchens and makes a point to caution renters about the surface water foam along the shoreline.
The foam issue makes Cole angry. The health advisory is muted and is ostensibly to warn people about accidental ingestion – it says “avoid foam” and recommends rinsing off after swimming. But Cole said it took years of badgering officials to get a wash station installed at the township beach at Ken Ratliff Park, where the foam accumulates along the shore when a microlayer of PFAS on the lake surface froths up on breezy days.
“I wouldn’t let my grandkids swim in our lake,” he said.
Greg Cole, owner of Cole’s Lakeside Cottages and activist with “Need Our Water,” stands along the shores of Van Etten Lake in Oscoda. (Mike Mullholland | MLive.com)
Cole has drawn rebukes for his activism at the bait shop and the bowling alley from people who think he’s harming the tourism economy. “They want us to shut up about PFAS,” he said.
“The ones that fish and hunt, the resort owners, people really tied into tourism up here – that’s their livelihood,” Cole said. “They would rather see the contamination go on, in a way, and not get noticed. They can continue to pull the wool over people’s eyes.”
“I don’t see it that way,” he added. “I love the area and love that lake. I’m not going to stay back and not say something about it. I don’t feel that’s the right thing to do.”
Homes sit on the shore of the Van Etten Lake in Oscoda. (Mike Mullholland | MLive.com)
Housing shortage is ‘stopping expansion’
Catherine Gavin-Larive said it’s not uncommon for a local real estate deal to implode once a buyer gets skittish about contamination.
Gavin-Larive, a local realtor at Real Estate One, said three transactions fell through last year and about “four or five” in 2019 due to PFAS worries. It’s been fewer this year thanks in no small part to the white-hot housing market across Michigan. Nonetheless, “there’s a lot of people that will not come here,” she said. “They would rather me search out other areas.”
“I’ve had a couple hunters say to me, ‘well, I can’t hunt in that area, so I don’t want to buy vacant land because I don’t know if the wildlife is affected and don’t want to feed that to my family,'” Gavin-Larive said. “It’s hard. It’s sad that we have this.”
“We need a cleanup,” she said.
Cleaning up the contamination could go a long way toward addressing a major frustration among locals, whom Gavin-Larive said she hears frequently complain about a lack of retailers. The US-23 strip that runs through town has a couple grocers and some chain restaurants, but the closest big box store, a Walmart, is about 12 miles south in Tawas City.
The township population – about 6,845 people, with a slight decline projected over the next few years – isn’t enough to support larger retailers and that’s unlikely to change until there’s more people and year-round employment in the area, she said.
A sign along F-41 welcomes drivers to Oscoda. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)
The contamination isn’t helping that problem. Neither is the excruciatingly long cleanup process used by the Air Force, which is still years away from being done investigating the contamination on the base alone.
Were the PFAS to be remediated, “you might see some bigger developers come to the area,” she said. “Some of them might want to buy properties as a brownfield. But until they know there’s something moving forward, it’s hit or miss.”
Development in Oscoda can be tough not just because of PFAS, but also thanks to entrenched resistance to change among some locals, say certain township leaders. Attempts to sell a greenspace area along US-23 named Furtaw Field for mixed-use housing and retail space has been staunchly opposed by a group of residents, who like it as parkland.
“There are a lot more reasons besides PFAS that we don’t get stuff done around here,” said Todd Dickerson, township economic improvement director. “Politically, we can’t seem to get out of our way. That’s on us. We’re a little dysfunctional in some areas.”
The township has lost institutional knowledge about PFAS and Air Force internal dynamics through elections. Richards, township supervisor, recently took over from predecessor Aaron Weed, a former Air Force maintenance supervisor, who fired Richards in 2018 for allegedly mismanaging water main extensions as local development coordinator.
Schaeffer, who resigned as superintendent last year, called downtown Oscoda a “sad state of affairs” and said local government turnover compounds the issue for developers.
“They don’t have finances together,” Schaeffer said about the township. “They don’t have leadership. They don’t have direction for the planning commission. That’s tough for a developer to get through.”
Oscoda has long been popular with hunters, anglers and tourists drawn to Lake Huron and the Au Sable River, which features a National Forest Scenic Byway with natural springs, high-bank dune trails and an overnight 120-mile canoe marathon that ends in Oscoda each year.
Doug Esch of Saline throws a cast in effort to catch migrating steelhead trout at a fishing pier along the mouth of the Au Sable River in Oscoda. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)
But tourism in northern Michigan generally stops in the winter. Attracting large-scale commercial and industrial developments and the year-round employment they provide has been a struggle, in part, because Oscoda is far from downstate trucking routes. The base, with its 11,800-foot runway built to accommodate B-52 bombers, could be an antidote for that.
There is some positive movement on that front. Kalitta Air is building a new hanger on base and wants to expand employment. Oscoda is also the preferred location for a Michigan aerospace group’s plans to develop a horizontal launch site for satellites.
Both projects would bring jobs to a community struggling with a housing shortage.
There’s high demand for middle income housing and rental units in Oscoda and not enough developers are lining up to build them. A housing study completed last year showed significant pent-up demand and a need for about 200 to 250 new rental units around the area. One development under construction that would add about eight more apartments at the edge of the base has been mired in delay for several year.
Don Nolan, maintenance director at Kalitta Air, said the company has trouble recruiting skilled labor to the area because of the housing shortage and the contamination. Kalitta brings mechanics who “pack up and leave for somewhere else to work” after their contract is over because there’s no apartments to rent in the summer, when vacation rental properties flip back to accommodating tourists and monthly prices skyrocket.
“Apartments are about the only thing that’s going to fix this problem,” Nolan said, who added that the PFAS also makes it hard to market the area to mechanics who hunt.
The housing shortage is “stopping expansion in our community,” said Robert Tasior, a former planning commissioner who was involved in the failed MSHDA project.
“We’re in a tough situation where we need this housing and our own state agencies refuse to help us build it in areas that we need it,” Tasior said.
Katie Bach, spokesperson for MSHDA, said the agency was concerned about the long-term potential for someone to be harmed by constructing housing at Wurtsmith.
“Our environmentalist on staff wasn’t interested in putting a single-family home with families and children on that site,” said Bach. The agency is “sympathetic” to the township’s need for housing, but she noted “this is a problem across the state in many areas.”
Contractors dig a remediation system trench between the granular activated carbon (GAC) treatment system shed and the former Fire Training Area No. 2 at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich. on April 22, 2021. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)
Infrastructure costs coming down the pipe
Bill Palmer is worried about the next time the storm sewers get plugged.
In February, a backup in the sewer line caused some flooding and threatened homes near the Villages of Oscoda, a housing development south of the former base. The problem was caused by tree roots invading the old concrete pipes and blocking the water flow.
The township owns the storm sewers, but the big user is the Air Force, which pumps about 500,000 to 700,000 gallons of water per day through the system from its groundwater treatment system on Mission Street. The system has been pumping for 30 years, and in that time, the Air Force has never paid the township a user fee to access its pipes.
Two years ago, the township analyzed the long-term maintenance costs and asked the Air Force to start paying a $3,000 monthly fee similar to what it pays for discharge from another treatment system on Arrow Street. The Air Force refused. The township asked the Air Force to simply assume ownership of the system. The Air Force refused.
In response to an inquiry from MLive, the Air Force said it plans to “open discussion on an equitable fee” with the township on sewer use following an independent evaluation.
Palmer, an Oscoda Township trustee who lives near the former base, said there’s little the township can do about the issue. Shutting down the line over non-payment would stop one of the base remediation systems – defeating the larger cleanup goal. Taking the Air Force, a federal entity, to court would be next to impossible.
“Talk about a helpless feeling,” said Palmer.
“It’s actually costing us money for them to be filtering contamination on base,” he said. “To me, that just doesn’t seem right.”
The storm sewers are only one of several major township infrastructure systems affected by PFAS contamination. Oscoda Township is cobbling together water main extension projects using state and U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development grants when it can.
The federal grant money is welcome, but it comes with restrictions. One of them is covering the cost of residential service line connections, which the grants prohibit. That means individual homeowners must shoulder the costs of connecting to the mains themselves.
The township has been taking out some loans in order to keep the construction on track and sidestep the fee burden on local homeowners. But Palmer said that bill for that will likely come down the pipe sooner or later in the form of increased water service rates.
The Air Force does not acknowledge the state of Michigan’s drinking water standards or groundwater criteria for PFAS, which are significantly lower than the federal action level and, if enforced, would result in many more properties being connected.
“It’s not fair,” Palmer said. “The people here didn’t create this problem.”
The township is incurring PFAS costs in its sanitary sewer system, too. The chemicals are showing up in wastewater effluent, forcing the township to back-trace for their source through its user base and, eventually, will likely require some pre-treatment.
Van Etten Dam drains water in to Van Etten Creek in Oscoda. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)
The township is also facing the prospect of being on the hook for PFAS remediation costs of its own. A plume was discovered in 2018 at an old dump north of Van Etten Lake formerly used by both the township and the Air Force. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) is expected to require a cleanup plan there at some point.
“There are offshoots of this that go in all kinds of different directions,” said Palmer. “It reaches into virtually everything once you start peeling the layers off.”
When asked by MLive what it says to the people of Oscoda who deal with stigma associated with contamination and economic difficulties and costs from a problem they did not create, the Air Force replied with a statement saying its actions are “driven by federal law.”
“We have heard the people of Oscoda, and the Air Force is taking action to address PFOS, PFOA and PFBS impacts at the former Wurtsmith AFB. PFAS is a national issue that impacts communities and individuals across the country. Our actions are driven by federal law that gives us the legal authority we need to address the impacts associated with PFOS, PFOA and PFBS attributable to our mission activities. We have taken actions to protect drinking water sources and supplies, and we will continue to take action to address other threats to human health and the environment.”
Schaeffer isn’t buying it.
“If a terrorist came from the Middle East and polluted our lake, you would never see a quicker response from the federal government. But the fact that the federal government polluted the area means they are going to be very, very slow to clean it up,” he said.
“That’s the truth of the matter.”
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