Frustrations mount as water well testing continues
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
Residents are pushing officials for answers in the ever-widening water contamination testing issue in the Grayling area.
Hundreds of people packed into the cafeteria at the Grayling High School on Monday, Nov. 27, to listen to a panel of local, state, and federal officials give an update on studies linked to tainted residential water wells near Grayling.
Between 2013 and 2015, federal officials mandated that every municipal drinking water system in the nation be tested for Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).
There are just over a dozen PFCs which were in common use, including Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health advisory for acceptable levels of just those two compounds is 70 parts per trillion.
In 2016, the National Guard Bureau issued a directive to identify water sources at every training facility, camp, fort, and armory. The order also included every installation which had an airfield where fire crash training occurred, or where fires occurred with the use of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF).
Water samples taken at the Grayling Army Airfield, where the foam was used for training purposes, tested positive for the chemicals in the fall of 2016.
Of 500 residential wells tested, 10 have had detects above 70 parts per trillion in Grayling Charter Township. Six of the homes are located south of the airfield, while four have tested at high levels for the chemicals east of the base. One residential water well within the City of Grayling has tested above the 70 parts per trillion health advisory.
Kory Groetsch, the environmental public health director for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the EPA’s health advisory was set so sensitive at 70 parts per trillion for human consumption of drinking water over a lifetime. It was also selt low for pregnant women, and mothers nursing a child.
PFCs were commonly used in food packing, such as fast food wrappers and pizza boxes, and for stain-resistant coating for carpets, upholstery, and fabrics. It was also in water-resistant clothing, cleaning products, and personal care products.
Residents whose wells test between two parts per trillion, the lowest level which lab technicians can detect, and 70 parts per trillion are receiving free water filters from the state. The filters removes the compounds from the water.
This past summer, water and foam samples were taken from Lake Margrethe.
One surface sample tested at 13.7 parts per trillion, which is just above 12 parts per trillion, which is considered acceptable for the ecosystem. A foam sample tested much higher at 30,400 parts per trillion for PFOS. Groetsch said the chemicals are concentrated at a higher amount when they come to the surface.
Groetsch advised citizens to not to have contact with or ingest the foam. He said people can still use the beach, swim in the lake, and catch and eat the fish. However, people were advised to follow the safe fish consumption guideline for mercury. Groetsch said the fish in the lake have tested positive for mercury dating back to 1988.
Residential water wells around Lake Margrethe will be tested for the compounds. Residential wells in the Karen Woods subdivision and north of M-72 will also be tested.
Sue Lemming, an administrator for the remediation redevelopment division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said it is unclear if the contamination in the lake is linked to the fire-fighting foam. Lemming, however, said she believes that the foam coming up to the surface of the lake is tied to contaminated residential water wells.
“Because they are manmade, they don’t go away easy and they’re here for a long time,” she said. “Finding out how to get rid of them is a work in progress.”
Since the source of the foam is unclear, Leeming said environmental officials can’t simply skim the water surface to remove it.
“We could remove that foam, but it’s still going to keep coming back as long as that source is there,” she said. “It is being studied around the world right now. It is something that we’re trying to understand and trying to take a look at and understand the true risks of it.”
Geo borings will be conducted in the new investigation areas to determine the types of soils and the direction where plumes of contamination may be flowing.
Monitoring wells will also be drilled next spring as an ongoing measure to track the contamination.
“In order to get the horizontal, the vertical, and the lateral extent of this stuff, it’s going to take a little bit of time,” said Randy Rothe, the district supervisor for the DEQ remediation and redevelopment division in Gaylord. “It’s not unusual to find this stuff in surface water. It’s really all over the place.”
Nearly every chair in the school cafeteria was filled, and people stood in back and along the sides as the panel gave its presentation. But people started filtering out when it was obvious that officials were not at a point to answer their questions or provide solutions to address the tainted water.
Karen Lithgow questioned the amount of time that the studies will take.
“I hate to say it, but I don’t think too many people really feel that the government works fast enough, and we’re all being told to patient,” she said. “How hopeful should we be that this will ever get fixed?”
Andrew Hart questioned if the federal government would pay the water bills for people who have tainted drinking water.
Brig. Gen. Michael A. Stone, the assistant adjutant general for installations for Michigan Army National Guard, said no funding solutions will be determined until the full environmental investigation is completed.
“The Department of the Army is not going to start writing checks to subsidize things until the discovery phase is done and they know the extent of their responsibility,” Stone said.
Lt. Col. Brian Burrell, the deputy camp commander at Camp Grayling, served as moderator for the meeting. The atmosphere became testy at times, when people were asking questions from the crowd. Burrell encouraged residents to get in line and come to a microphone to have their concerns addressed.
Bill Bonkowski, who has a two-story home with five acres on Evergreen Drive, said he has had two deals to sell his property fall through because of the water issue. He asked if he could get a letter stating the water is safe from the township or the military. Bonkowski also questioned if the township or military would buy residents’ land impacted by the issue, which was met with a round of applause.
“It’s tough situation. It’s a tough question. It’s a tough answer, so I’m wondering what we people do who want to sell our homes,” Bonkowski said.
Stone said the military would not step away from the issue.
“Once they see the evidence, there is no indication or hint that they going to walk away from any federal responsibility,” Stone said.
State officials are also wresting with contamination from the firefighting foam at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.
Laura Schans questioned potential links to cancer, similar to residents living in Kalkaska and Mio, where cattle were buried in pits in 1974. The cattle were fed with feed, which had accidentally mixed with polybrominated biphenyl (PBB,) a fire-retardant material.
Groetsch said the foam and fire-retardant served the same purposes.
“There is range of chemicals that can do that, but from a toxicology standpoint, though, they are very different chemicals,” Groetsch said.
In 2011, following seven years of studies, results were released from a study of thousands of people who live in the Ohio River Valley who were tested for PFC exposure as a result of a class action lawsuit. Six health outcomes of those people studied included increased cholesterol, Ulcerative colitis, Preeclampsia, higher thyroid function, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer. In addition, children exposed to PFCs had lower immunity after receiving some vaccinations, which required some booster vaccinations.
The state has created a website where the public can find out information about the contamination and the coordinated efforts currently underway to address it in Michigan. The site will be updated as additional information becomes available. The website address is http://michigan.gov/pfasresponse.
If any resident has additional questions regarding this issue, the State of Michigan Environmental Assistance Center can be contacted at 800-662-9278, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Veterans with concerns can call MICH-VET or 800-642-4838.