At the Wurtsmith Open House, the Air Force attempts to regain trust in Oscoda

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OSCODA, MI — Everyone wanted Kate Lynnes’ ear this week.

Lynnes, a senior US Air Force sanitation official, was surrounded by skeptical members of the community who saw more than one senior official make big promises during the long and eventful PFAS cleanup at Oscoda.

But Lynnes was jovial and friendly as the dialogue delved deep into the weeds of environmental cleanup — an area in which Lynnes, a Michigander from Muskegon with a background in western cleanup engineering circles of Michigan, knows well.

“Engagement is a big deal for me,” said Lynnes, a self-proclaimed “hands-on regulatory cleaning nerd” who fills a new position created within Air Force leadership to bridge the gap between personnel on the field and senior management.

On Oct. 26, the Air Force invited the public to view a pair of new treatment systems that filter PFAS-polluted groundwater through granular activated carbon, a charcoal-like substance that helps treat the plumes bleeding from both ends of the old Wurtsmith Air Force Base. .

The $11 million systems have been pushed by Congress and angry community members over the painfully slow investigation and cleanup. They work as a kind of band-aid on the flow of toxic “eternal chemicals” into Lake Van Etten and Clark Marsh, where pollutants create toxic surface water foam and render fish unfit for consumption.

The launch of the treatment systems also presented the Air Force with an opportunity to deploy new faces and attempt to mend a damaged relationship with the community of Oscoda, which lost faith in the military after years of miscommunication, technical and legal disputes, personnel changes, and adamant refusal to accept responsibility for PFAS anywhere off base.

Lynnes knows it won’t be easy.

“We like to do our PowerPoints and stand there and look stiff and do our thing, but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the community,” said Lynnes, who pursued a career in sanitation after seeing the devastation caused by industrial pollution on White Lake.

“I push,” she said.

“It comes from me and my boss agrees.”

His boss is Nancy Balkus, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force who oversees environmental remediation. Balkus stressed the importance of transparency and community engagement repeatedly during an Aug. 1 U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee field hearing in East Lansing convened by Senator Gary. Peters, D-Mich.

But the community doesn’t see transparency happening. In fact, he sees the opposite. Local activists say they are unable to review draft plans at a time when their input would be significant and members of a local cleanup advisory board are upset that the Air Force is refusing to share several years of raw contaminant testing data from the database.

Data hoarding aggravates disagreement over accuracy of Air Force data plume maps, which community members say appear more policy-oriented than scientific and make the overall spread of contamination much less severe than the maps drawn by the Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Michigan Energy (EGLE).

Earlier this month, Wurtsmith’s Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) co-chairman sent a scathing letter to Balkus and senior Pentagon officials, slamming secrecy and disregard for state input during the development long-term cleaning plans.

Mark Henry, a former Michigan State environmental engineer who worked for decades at Wurtsmith, wrote in an Oct. 11 letter that draft documents and test data are vetted “as if cleanup were an issue. national security” and “when the data is released for the public it has been disinfected and the contaminant plume maps… are scientifically nonsense.

Any notion that there is transparency and public inclusion in the planning process is “seriously flawed,” Henry wrote. “The entire environmental assessment, investigation and remediation process” is “entirely and seriously flawed”.

Related: Wurtsmith experts expose the secret of PFAS cleaning

Henry and another former state environmental regulator with deep knowledge of base pollution, Bob Delaney, want access to Base Closure Team (BCT) meetings where key discussions and take-offs take place. of decision.

The meetings were previously open to community members and are regularly attended by a large number of agencies and private entrepreneurs, advocates say.

They are “where all the real decisions are made in terms of investigation and the acceptability of what is done,” said Delaney, who discovered PFAS in Wurtsmith in 2010 and later warned the Snyder administration of the chemical products. Retired from EGLE, he now helps advise a community group pushing for tougher cleaning.

For advisory board members like Dave Winn, it’s ridiculous to exclude technical experts like Henry and Delaney when Air Force personnel are all new transplants.

Winn, a General Motors retiree who lives on Lake Van Etten, sees a glaring imbalance in institutional knowledge. Steve Willis, the Air Force field manager at Oscoda, arrived this spring and is the fifth Air Force site manager at Wurtsmith in the past six years.

“Steve has only been in this program for less than a year – and he’s in charge,” Winn said. “Mark (Henry) has been on this site for 25 years. Having this experience provides them with a lot of background information that they would never have.

But the Air Force refuses to reopen the meetings, arguing that its internal policies prohibit inclusion beyond defense personnel, state regulators and the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has no presence or involvement with Wurtsmith. The technical involvement of the community is seen as a threat to frank discussions. Balkus made that argument at the Senate Homeland Security hearing in August and Lynnes reiterated it this week.

“We will keep the (Base Closure Team) meetings between us and the state because we need a free discussion with EGLE,” she said.

But Lynnes and other Air Force officials said this week they are developing workarounds to share information and incorporate community feedback into the site’s investigation and planning.

During a second open house Thursday, Oct. 27, Lynnes and John Gillespie, an Air Force senior environmental engineer, told community members gathered at a lodge on Lake Van Etten that the Air Force would spend the next few winter months sharing data. and solicit technical feedback prior to spring fieldwork.

“You’re heard and there won’t be that disconnect,” Lynnes said. “Give us a few months, let us start working on this stuff, bring all the necessary tools.”

Moreover, “we will work very hard to release the data”.

Whether this will satisfy the demand for community input remains open.

“I’m afraid the bus has already left the station,” Henry said. “We missed our opportunities to work on the substance for what happens next.”

Arnie Leriche, a former EPA environmental engineer and former co-chair of the Restoration Advisory Board, said the community will never ‘catch up’ unless they can get a copy of the state’s comments on the projects of investigation planning documents at the same time the Air Force receives it. . Lynnes wouldn’t commit to it, saying “it’s something we have to sort out at the Pentagon and at the executive level.

Tony Spaniola remains deeply skeptical.

“We’ve heard this many times before,” Spaniola, a national PFAS activist who owns a home on Lake Van Etten, told Air Force officials Thursday. ” Everything will change. So what’s going on? — you dump the corrective investigation plan on people without the possibility of comment. Now you’ve dumped that risk assessment without comment. »

“We need specific commitments because we can’t trust the Air Force,” Spaniola said.

Despite the frustration, the influx of new faces and promises to right the ship have prompted cautious optimism from the likes of Winn, Spaniola and Delaney.

In addition to Lynnes and Gillespie, Dan Medina joined the open house this week as the new acting head of the Air Force Remediation Program at closed bases like Wurtsmith. The former leader, Stephen TerMaath, was known to be combative with the state and distrustful of community advocates. He retired in May.

Delaney said the Oscoda community will likely always be less involved in the repair process than they would like, but they still have a vital watchdog role.

“The more you get involved, the more you observe them, the more you know if they know what they’re doing, what their motivations are, are they going to do a good job? Delaney said. “That’s the most important thing the public needs is the level of comfort with the quality of the work being done and the integrity of the people involved. Are they really looking out for the public interest or are they just following their own career path?

“You really have to have that confidence,” Delaney said. “And that’s what’s really been lost here. This trust has been totally shaken in the government and those involved. There were people who intentionally misled and kept the public in the dark for their own personal reasons.

“I hope it’s a new day.”

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