Residential water wells near Grayling Army Airfield will be tested for potential contamination
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
We’re going to drill down to the ground truth, and while there is much we know, there is much we don’t know, but we’re going to get there." – Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Vadnais, Adjutant General and Director of the Michigan Department of Military & Veterans Affairs
An extensive environmental site assessment is underway at the Grayling Army Airfield and it will extend to neighboring private property, checking for chemicals that have been linked to causing defects in animals, lowering immunity for children, and causing cancer in humans.
Several Grayling area residents attended a public meeting hosted by the Michigan Department of Military & Veterans Affairs (DMVA) at the Grayling Middle School on Thursday, May 18.
Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act, monitoring for Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) was mandated for public water systems in 2012. The monitoring was completed between January 2013 and December 2013.
There are a dozen PFCs that were in common use including Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). The chemicals 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.
On military bases and airfields, aqueros (water-based) film-forming water fighting foam contains PF0S.
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.
In the fall of 2016, water samples were taken from monitoring wells at the Grayling Army Airfield. Due to low detection levels and an issue with the sampling verification, more tests were conducted on wells on the southern boundary of the Grayling Army Airfield.
After receiving those test results, the DMVA, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and the Michigan Human Health and Human Services (DHHS) partnered to address the issue. A cluster of 20 monitoring wells were installed along the Grayling Army Airfield’s fence line and 60 groundwater samples were collected. Of those samples, which came back in mid-April of this year, 20 tested positive for PFCs and five exceeded the U.S. EPA’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.
That prompted the public meeting last week.
Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Vadnais, the adjutant general and the director of the DMVA, said state officials are striving to be proactive as further testing occurs.
“We’re going to drill down to the ground truth, and while there is much we know, there is much we don’t know, but we’re going to get there,” Vadnais said.
Jonathan Edgerly, a natural resource analyst for the DMVA, said the National Guard Bureau approved a formal site investigation to determine sources and locations where the firefighting foam was used, if a plume of contamination exists in the groundwater, and what remediation efforts need to be addressed.
“We’re not worrying waiting for funding – waiting for the blame game,” Edgerly said. “We’re going to take the initiative and look at the risk that we have first and foremost for our neighbors.”
The investigation will include testing private residential water wells in between the airfield and the AuSable River in Grayling Charter Township, specifically in the Sherwood Forest subdivision and along Evergreen Drive.
Post cards were sent to residents in the area where water wells will be tested. The DMVA also placed a public notice for the meeting held last week in the May 18 edition of the Crawford County Avalanche.
Christina Bush, a toxicologist for the DHHS, said residents who are concerned about the safety of their water could still use it for showering, bathing, and doing dishes.
“Anything but down the hatch and that includes drinking and cooking,” Bush said.
Kyle Bond, the superintendent for the City of Grayling’s Department of Public Works, said a water tree has been established on a hydrant near the Grayling City Hall. This will allow Grayling Charter Township residents in the area where wells will be tested to have a safe source for water between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. In addition, the Grayling Family Fare has donated 200 gallon jugs to fill and reuse at the hydrant.
Amy Weston, a Grayling resident and an organizer for the Relay for Life of Crawford County, asked about the health effects of being exposed to PFCs, especially for cancer.
Bush responded that tests for PFCs exposure to animals and have indicated an impact to fetuses and a delay in the formation of bones. She added that as a result of the settlement of a class action lawsuit with Dupont, which has a plant located between Ohio and West Virginia on the Ohio River, 69,000 people were tested for PFCs exposure. Several communities use the river as their source of drinking water.
Six health outcomes of those people studied included increased cholesterol, Ulcerative colitis, Preeclampsia, higher thyroid function, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer.
Finally, Bush added that children exposed to PFCs may have a lower immunity when receiving some vaccinations, which would require some booster vaccinations.
Bush, however, said the research that has been released is not conclusive and predictive, comparing it to someone who is diagnosed with lung cancer who has never been a smoker.
“We can’t make that jump,” Bush said. “The science isn’t there yet, and I don’t know if it will ever be there.”
James Gardiner, a former Michigan National Guard officer who has property near the AuSable River, questioned if the river would serve as a natural barrier for a potential contamination plume.
Several references were made to Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. State officials have conducted tests for PFCs at the base.
Bush said that firefighting foam was used to battle forest fires in an area near the AuSable River in Oscoda on the opposite side of where the base is located. She added that additional hydrology studies are taking place to determine if the PFCs are flowing in the groundwater below the river.
“This stuff saves lives,” Bush said. “It’s great for that, but it’s lousy for getting into the environment.”
Edgerly said that tests at the Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which was in operation from 1923 to 1993, found levels of PFCs in the tens of thousandths. So far, there has been only one high-level detection for PFCs at the Grayling Army Airfield at the 40 to 45-foot level below the ground. He said that is the level at which most home residential water wells are drilled to draw water from the aquifer. Edgerly compared the test results to less than a drop of water in an Olympic size swimming pool.
Edgerly said the testing would be ongoing.
“It’s not going to be a one and done,” he said.
Grayling Charter Township resident Connie Kalonich questioned if the PFCs can ever be removed from the water.
Dave Lindsay, from the DEQ’s Gaylord office, said the use of granular activated carbon or a reverse osmosis system, could be used to remove chemicals from the water.
“You can eventually get it out of the water through a treatment process,” Lindsay said.
Bush said that warnings have been issued to not eat fish caught near the Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
Lindsay said testing of tissue from fish taken from the AuSable River will be done as a precautionary measure.
Dave Moritz, a resource deputy director Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said officials will work hand-in-hand with the monitoring efforts to make sure that there is no negative impact on outdoor activities including fishing, canoeing, and kayaking in the community.
Grayling Charter Township resident Jeremy Bowers reiterated a concern raised about homeowners potentially selling their property, and explaining the groundwater issue to potential buyers.
“If I have kids, and if I’m looking for a house to buy, I’m not buying in that area. I’m just not,” said Bowers, who said he will still drink the water.
For more information regarding testing of residents’ water wells, call (517) 481-8141.
Updated information will also be made available at www.Michigan.gov/campgrayling.