OSCODA, MI – Mark Henry and Bob Delaney know a thing or two about how pollution moves through the soil and water at the old Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
Henry started working at Wurtsmith in the 1990s as an environmental engineer for the State of Michigan. Today, he is co-chair of a community council that advises the Air Force on its cleanup of toxic PFAS around Oscoda.
Delaney discovered PFAS in Wurtsmith and retired in 2020 as Site Manager at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the only agency with any influence on the Air Force involved in cleanup.
They are both very comfortable with weeds of groundwater flow patterns, contaminant fate and transport, testing methodologies, remediation criteria and other technical aspects of soil cleanup. former B-52 bomber base, which sits atop many toxic plumes.
But neither Henry nor Delaney — each with decades more hands-on experience at Wurtsmith than any state or federal official now involved — is more welcome in the room when decisions are being made about where and how to investigate. and eliminate pollution in Oscoda.
This is a huge mistake, they and other defenders say. Community members say it robs the process of key information and escalates tensions with the Air Force as new risk assessments begin in the extremely slow cleaning process and extensions of cleaning systems drafts that the Air Force previously resisted are finally coming online.
“If the process is flawed, the outcome is usually flawed,” said Tony Spaniola, an attorney who helps run the Need Our Water (NOW) group in Oscoda, where he owns a home near the base.
“That’s what’s happening here,” he said. “It’s a whitewash, not an investigation.”
On October 11, Henry sent a six-page letter to senior Pentagon officials, asking them to “address serious deficiencies” in the Department of Defense’s (DOD) remediation efforts at Wurtsmith.
Henry said he has yet to receive a response to his letter from anyone in the state or federal government. A Pentagon spokesperson told MLive that a response was being drafted.
“The entire environmental assessment, investigation and remediation process” at Wurtsmith is “entirely and seriously flawed,” Henry wrote, arguing that internal defense policies promote secrecy while excluding regulators from the environment. state and the public of the process.
Senior officials may talk about transparency and cooperation in public statements and congressional hearings, but the experience on the ground is very different, he wrote.
If the Pentagon leadership “has the illusion that there is transparency” in the planning of the cleanup and the inclusion of the public in the process “then the DOD leadership is seriously mistaken.”
Draft documents and test data are vetted “as if the cleanup were a national security issue,” Henry wrote. “When the data is made public, it has been sanitized and the contaminant plume maps … are scientifically nonsensical.”
A Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) reformed in 2018 in Wurtsmith provides a public forum to ask questions and receive updates on the progress of grassroots repair efforts, but Henry said the “present, answer , leave” from the Air Force The board is structured more to “check the box” on receiving public input rather than soliciting meaningful feedback to help inform the cleanup because decisions are presented after they have been taken.
Community and local government access to technical gatherings called Base Closure Team (BCT) meetings has also been restricted, Henry wrote. The change prompted questioning by Sen. Gary Peters during a U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee field hearing Aug. 1 in East Lansing, which focused on Wurtsmith.
In the wake of the community contribution shutdown, Henry says the Air Force’s plans to tackle a base-wide risk assessment that took more than a year to develop and which help guide the long-term cleanup process, are incomplete and lack PFAS source areas around the base.
Henry said the Air Force is not using the correct criteria to define the extent of PFAS in the soil, which creates an incomplete contamination picture and will result in cleaning solutions that will allow PFAS to continue to seep in. in groundwater.
The community isn’t the only one being ignored, he said. The Air Force spent much of 2022 withholding field data from state regulators at EGLE, and in September finalized its work plan without addressing many of EGLE’s concerns about the project — which the state had only been able to access through an online portal “devoid of editing functionality.”
The Air Force’s opacity will likely result in an incomplete and unnecessarily expensive cleanup, Henry wrote.
“As taxpayer citizens who are paying for this, to go ahead with a cleanup plan that may well cost the federal government far more than necessary and still not address all of the PFAS contamination at the site is disheartening, alarming. and unacceptable,” Henry wrote.
His letter was addressed to senior Michigan officials and several of its congressional delegates, as well as high-ranking undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in the Pentagon bureaucracy such as Richard Kidd, William LaPlante, Paul Cramer, and Nancy Balkus. .
“The Air Force, in my opinion, really acts like a bully,” he said. “They’ve forced the state into an essentially subordinate position here, with almost nothing to say about what’s going on.”
The State of Michigan tries to influence Oscoda, but struggles. The Air Force often pushes back against state regulators, refusing to comply with state laws or sometimes completely ignoring communications — even from Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whom the Pentagon ignored for a year after. attempting to invoke the provisions of the Defense Bill to enforce compliance with state laws. PFAS cleaning rules.
This week, the Air Force plans to open the doors of several interim cleaning systems it installed in Wurtsmith under intense pressure from Congress. In an Oct. 11 press release, the Air Force said these systems would meet 2016 requirements developed before the state passed updated PFAS relief rules a few years ago — ignoring effectively state law and Governor Whitmer in asserting that the most lenient standards are maintained in the system.
EGLE regulators declined to comment on Henry’s letter but accepted the details of it. The state sent the Air Force a letter in May expressing concern that its input into the investigative work plan has not been resolved and that some of it has been “taken out of context.” “.
Among many concerns in its 11-page letter, EGLE identified data gaps from the plume bordering Lake Van Etten and said the Air Force’s refusal to investigate PFAS on the east side of the lake does not reflect new information and goes against its own internal policies.
The state also called for data in a “usable format,” asked the Air Force to use more up-to-date toxicity screening values, and expand air and gas testing. surface waters.
“In our view, the plan is not finalized,” said EGLE spokesman Scott Dean.
The dynamic stems from the legal structure governing surveillance, Henry said. The Air Force basically regulates itself under federal law. It is Wurtsmith’s “lead agency”, operating with the same oversight and decision-making authority as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a similar pollution site involving a private industrial polluter.
“The Air Force is not a regulator or a public health agency,” Henry said. “It’s not an agency. And because of that, they don’t follow the rules that the agencies follow.
“It’s an autocratic system and it’s not supposed to be like that.”
In its email to MLive, the Air Force dismissed Henry’s concerns about missing PFAS source areas in cleanup planning as “a professional difference of opinion” and said that several of the sites he identified as requiring special cleaning attention do not require additional testing.
Regarding EGLE’s concerns about its work plan, Air Force spokesman Mark Kinkade said that “although the Air Force would prefer to come to a consensus with the state, this does not is not a requirement of the law”.
The Air Force said its Defense Environmental Restoration Program (DERP) manual was the reason community experts like Henry and Delaney aren’t allowed to attend technical meetings. The manual says base closure team meetings are only supposed to involve defense personnel, state regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Limiting participation allows for frank discussion, he argues.
“These discussions allow representatives to candidly discuss and collaborate on environmental cleanup strategies, draft pre-decision documents, and highly technical cleanup issues,” Kinkade said.
However, defenders counter that the EPA has no involvement in the Wurtsmith cleanup and that technical meetings regularly feature many people from different federal agencies as well as their private contractors. Requests for minutes of these meetings are also ignored.
“That’s one of the concerns that we continue to bring to the Air Force because it actually affects the sense of transparency between the Air Force and the community,” said Tim Cummings, a township administrator. Oscoda, at the last catering advisory board meeting in August. “We don’t know what’s going on in there. And we have no reading.
Closing technical meetings to outside input demonstrates a desire to “control the agenda” and avoid — not engender — frank discussion, Spaniola said.
“The community has no representation and, frankly, no trust in what they offer.”
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