Military officials hope that pilot program with mobile lab will lead to quicker solutions at Grayling Army Airfield
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
Cutting edge technology is being used to detect the extent of contamination caused by a firefighting foam used by the military at the Grayling Army Airfield to try to figure how those chemicals are moving off base and tainting private drinking water wells.
In late October, technicians began gathering more water and soil samples within the confines of the Grayling Army Airfield. The samples are being tested in a mobile lab.
Between 2013 and 2015, federal officials mandated that every municipal drinking water system in the nation be tested for Perfluorinated compounds – PFCs or PFAS.
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.
Instead of taking three to four weeks to get the results back for a remedial investigation that is underway, mobile labs are now being used to analyze the water and soil samples. That means results can be obtained within a 24-hour period.
The savings in time allows crews to take samples in areas of the airfield where there are potentially high concentrations of PFAS.
“That’s earth-shattering different,” said Bonnie Packer, the PFAS lead technician for the Army National Guard. “We can move to solutions more quickly.”
The Grayling Army Airfield is the first Department of Defense (DOD) site in the nation where such testing is occurring since the contamination has migrated off site and has contaminated private water wells used by residents.
“The need for the Guard and the Grayling community, it was just the right timing,” said Maj. Donna S. Wu, from the Army National Guard National Guard Cleanup and Restoration Branch.
Funding is coming from the Environmental Strategic Technological Certification Program, which is made up of representatives from the DOD, EPA, and the Department of Energy.
The tests are being taken on the east boundary of the airfield, and in three different areas southeast of known areas where the firefighting foam was used.
“We’re basically laying down a grid and taking a bunch of soil samples to see if we can find with some certainty where the release areas were,” Packer said.
Up to 20 samples can be analyzed per day. Water samples are being taken below and under the water table. Soils samples are being taken every eight feet down to 60 feet.
The intent is to determine how PFAS moves through water and reacts to sand, silt, and clay in the ground.
“Frankly, it’s a work in progress,” said Joseph A. Quinnan, the senior vice president and principal hydrologist for Arcadis, a design and consulting firm based in Novi. “PFAS transport is kind of complicated.”
Samples are being tested in a first lab to determine the concentrations of PFAS. They are then tested in a second lab, where the compounds from chemicals are shaken and removed from the water samples.
Testing will continue up until Thanksgiving. More samples will be taken in the spring, and all results will be compiled by a June or July time frame.
The ultimate goal is to come up with a three-dimensional image of where the PFAS plume is vertically and horizontally located in the ground and water.
Those results will be combined with water and soil testing completed by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) on areas adjacent to the airfield and near Lake Margrethe.
“It will basically put the pieces together from what EGLE has done off post and help us put both parts of the puzzle together – the outside part and the inside part,” Quinnan said.
The mobile lab meets National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation for water testing, like any other land based lab utilized by the DOD. The mobile lab is in the process of being accredited for soil testing.
If the mobile lab can meet both standards, they then can be used at more than 2,000 military sites where the firefighting foam was used as well as for other commercial applications.
Camp Grayling and National Guard Bureau officials are negotiating agreements that would connect 17 area residents impacted by PFAS to a safe source of drinking water.
Three homes in the City of Grayling that have their own private water wells would be connected to the city’s municipal water system.
Fourteen residents in Grayling Charter Township would be connected to a newly constructed municipal water system.
If the State of Michigan lowers the threshold for PFAS and PFOA below the 70 parts per trillion guideline, up to 80 homes would have to be connected to a safe source of drinking water.
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.
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.