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Wurtsmith Air Force Base – Oscoda, MI

by Civilian Exposure

WAFB began operations in 1923, under the name of Camp Skeel, and was officially named the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in 1953.  The base is located in Oscoda, Iosco County, Michigan. WAFB closed in 1993 and is gradually being turned over to the Oscoda Airport Authority for reuse as an industrial park and airfield (EPA 2012).  The 5,221-acre site is bounded by Van Etten Lake to the north and east, Oscoda and Au Sable Townships to the east and south, the Huron National Forest (including wetlands associated with the Au Sable River) to the south, and the Au Sable State Forest to the north and west.  Lake Huron is less than one mile east of the site (ATSDR 2001).

VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS (VOCS), along with other chemicals of concern, have been detected in the groundwater. These include:

  • TCE
  • 1,1-Dichloroethane
  • 1,1,1-Trichloroethane
  • Vinyl Chloride
  • PCE
  • Toluene
  • Xylene
  • Naphthalene
  • Ethylbenzene
  • Lead
  • Benzene

While contaminated for years, Wurtsmith is now causing additional problems due to new discoveries of PFC leakages into nearby water supplies. As recently as February, 2016, advisories have been given to surrounding communities about this newly discovered problem.

The most recent revelation about the contamination at Wurtsmith, which closed in 1993, is that perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs — a legacy of firefighting foam used at the base for many years — have migrated from groundwater under the base to pollute nearby residential wells. – Detroit Free Press

Wurtsmith has already dealt with years of contamination issues from gasoline and industrial solvents like trichloroethylene (TCE), which migrated off the base in the 1980s. It was considered for Superfund status in 1994, when it was discovered that groundwater plumes were entering adjacent Van Etten Lake, the Au Sable River, local drains, wetlands, floodplains and water wells. But, with the recent discovery of PFCs, Wurtsmith base contamination is drawing new scrutiny and public concern.

In February, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a joint statement with the health department in Iosco County advising some residents near Wurtsmith to “seek an alternative water supply” for cooking and drinking after recent testing found PFC contamination in local well water. – Michigan Live

A May, 2016 CDC Document on PFOS at Wurtsmith gives greater detail. According to the report:

  • PFOS was detected in nearly all fish sampled from area waterbodies, with the concentration of PFOS being at least 90 percent of the total PFC concentration in the vast majority of the samples;
  • PFOS has been the most commonly detected PFC in biota (fish and other wildlife) sampled from the Great Lakes region (Kannan et al. 2005, Ye et al 2008, Delinksy et al. 2009);
  • PFOS usually has the highest concentration compared to other PFCs (Ye et al. 2008, Delinsky et al. 2010); and
  • PFOS bioaccumulates (builds up in the food chain; EPA 2009b).

MDHHS has reached the following conclusion about the PFOS contamination at and near WAFB: Levels of PFOS found in fish consumed regularly from Clark’s Marsh, Allen Lake, and portions of the Au Sable River could harm people’s health. – WAFB_Fish_HC-03-1-2016


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