OSCODA — Tucked in around the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, a mass water purification operation is taking place. And if you know where to look, one can spot the buildings that, house wells and tanks sucking up water to purifying the ground of Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). These are among a family of chemicals known as Per Flouryl Alkyl substances (PFAS).
Recent upgrades mean the pump and treatment system pulls water from the ground at a constant rate of 1,400 gallons per minute, which equals to about 2,000,000 gallons per day. It has been in place since 2017, but has received new expansions to the tank and pumping system. It was reported as an $11 million project that nearly doubles the systems’ treatment capacity.
To celebrate the upgrades, the Air Force hosted a Site Tour and PFAS Technical Workshop at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Oct. 26 and 27.
The workshop involved a tour of the CTS building, the Well control building and the FT02 Treatment Building.
People from many different backgrounds attended. Members of the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), environmental activist groups, Air Force, state departments, tribal groups and general members of the public showed up to ask questions about the specifications of the operation.
“From a hydro-geologic environmental engineering standpoint, we can do a pretty good job of managing groundwater from flowing off site,” said Jim Romer of Aerostar, a company based in Texas. Environmental cleanup is one among of their many hats. Romer is the Remediation Engineer in charge of monitoring and reducing contamination in the wells and tanks as the water is purified.
Romer said the job of environmental cleanup in the area previously involved petroleum, chlorinated solvents and “different stuff.”
The $4.7 million project expands an existing treatment system with six additional groundwater extraction wells. It also adds three granular activated carbon (GAC) units to pre-treat extracted groundwater.
GAC systems involve large tanks that hold tons of activated charcoal, a porous substance, that traps contaminants in water.
After the GAC tanks reach a certain level of contamination, they are cleaned out and the charcoal is sent for “regeneration,” which means they are heated to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, destroying all organic compounds and reused.
They also have a solid waste collector, which filters out solids into a separate tank. They introduce diatomaceous earth, which clings to any impurities and settles at the bottom where it is transferred to a press. They squeeze out any water from the contaminants and send that down to a the Subtitle C landfill in Belleville, MI.
Just like every other contamination cleanup scenario, Romer said the first step always involved preventing additional flux of the stuff in the environment flowing down stream.
“We don’t want to pump these for 30 years. How do we go back up and actually kill the sources and get this to grade down?”
While the facilities on base do their job of taking away PFAS, the main issue is there is not enough to completely remove any contamination. Romer said their job is to only act as a “stopgap” in the system to prevent further contamination down stream. Any PFAS currently present in Van Etten or Clark’s Marsh is staying there for now. That’s cleanup for another day.
“I think it’s great,” said Bob Delaney. “I used to work for the state trying to get them to do testing across the state.”
He said he was glad to see the Air Force finally doing something about the cleanup after all these years.
Delaney used to work for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, now known as EGLE. He discovered the PFAS contamination in Wurtsmith in 2010.
In an August meeting for the RAB, he said despite the EPA health advisories just decreasing, the Air Force are following less stringent standards.
“Michigan’s criteria are the thing that they’re going to default to. And so I explain this to you, to understand how the game is played. So whichever number is more convenient, that’s what the Air Force has used in the past.”
Due to the chemical’s toxicity in even incredibly low volumes, the EPA has set the standard to “virtually undetectable” standards. They set PFOS contaminants in the water to 0.004 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA, and 0.02 ppt for PFOS.
In 2020, EGLE set Michigan’s guidelines at 8 ppt for PFOA and 16 ppt for PFOS.
Before the EPA’s new standards set in June, the maximum allowable amount in outflow water was 70 ppt for both PFOS and PFOA.
Currently, Romer reports the incoming rate of PFAS is between 2,000 to 4,000 nanograms per liter, while the discharge rate is around 20 to 40 nanograms per liter.
This level was determined by the the 2016 Substantive Requirements Document (SRD), set by EGLE. This is the standards the Air Force has used, with attorneys arguing they’re grandfathered in, according to a 2021 MLive article.
Romer said they will monitor the wells closely for 9 months to determine if the new system is doing well.
Some people in the community would like to see more done.
Mike Munson of the RAB said the Air Force has been kicking and dragging their feet for years around this issue.
“They discuss it first,” he said. ‘Should we clean it up?’ ‘I don’t know!’ Then they discuss on how to clean it up. ‘Should we use a rag, or maybe a paper towel?’ Meanwhile, it’s flowing.”
The community of Oscoda has had a history of going back and forth with the Air Force on cleaning up the contamination left on base.
Earlier in October, MLive reported Mark Henry and Bob Delaney, both experts in the PFAS contamination at Wurtsmith, aren’t welcomed at meeting with the Department of Defense surrounding the cleanup effort. Their contributions have largely been stonewalled.