Some water wells near Airfield test positive for contaminants, as more testing is planned
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
Water is the basis for everything. Living up here in this beautiful country, you don’t think you have to worry about water, but I guess we do.” – Bernadine Dosch, Grayling
Concerns over the safety of drinking water and property values filtered through the Camp Grayling Armory last week, where military and state health officials released the initial reports regarding contaminated ground water to the public.
The town hall meeting was held at the Camp Grayling Armory on Wednesday, July 19, to address results of testing for contamination gathered from residential water wells on property located near the Grayling Army Airfield.
The investigation to determine if chemicals have leached into the water table included 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.
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).
The foam contains Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which “have been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an emerging contaminate on the national landscape,” according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The EPA’s health advisory for the contamination is 70 parts per trillion.
There are just over 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.
As of July 14, 161 water wells in Grayling Charter Township were tested and the data results were validated. Of those results, three homes tested above 70 parts per trillion, and were provided with an alternative source for drinking water by the District Health Department #10 (DHD #10) and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
Twenty other homes had low detection levels that health officials recommended the use of under the sink water filters to continue human consumption.
Grayling resident Bernadine Dosch, who was given a water filter, said she was frightened after attending the meeting and learning more about the water test results.
“Water is the basis for everything,” Dosch said. “Living up here in this beautiful country, you don’t think you have to worry about water, but I guess we do.”
Grayling resident Paul Williams was among a few residents who questioned how the ground water issue would impact their property values.
“I think we’ve all taken a black eye to some degree,” Williams said. “I’m not saying that we’re all looking for a monetary handout, but we want to figure out where we stand.”
Resident Dennis Wallace questioned the value of his home after receiving a report that recommended he get a water filter.
“It’s pretty ugly. They tell me not to drink it,” Wallace said, regarding his test results. “I bought my house for a retirement investment. Now what is it worth?”
Sue Lemming, an employee from the remediation redevelopment division of the DEQ, said state officials are taking steps to address property value issues. She said the concerns are similar for Oscoda County residents who live near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, where levels for PFCs far exceed what have been found in the Grayling area.
“All I can say is we’re on it, we’re looking at it, and we’re very concerned as well,” Lemming said.
Randy Thompson, a broker and the owner of Century 21 River Country, asked for the exact location of homes where the contamination exceeded the health advisory.
Jonathan Edgerly, a natural resource analyst for the Michigan Department of Military & Veterans Affairs (DMVA), said the results were shared only with the homeowners and state regulators, citing that it is a privacy issue.
“If a homeowner would like to divulge that issue to you, that’s their choice,” Edgerly said.
Lt. Col. Theresa Brown, the deputy camp commander for Camp Grayling, told the crowd she rents a home on Evergreen Drive. She said there is not a clear delineation regarding where the contamination has entered residential water wells.
“There is no pattern to the map,” Brown said.
Dave Lindsay, from the Michigan DEQ’s Gaylord field office, said the state will retest the water wells. In addition, monitoring wells will be installed in hopes of detecting the source of the contamination and the delineation of the plume, the mass of contamination spreading from the source. Soil borings will also be completed.
Despite a lack of information on the advancement of a plume, resident Ronda Rakoczy said contamination could move slowly or travel several miles, so residents cannot have confidence in the initial reports.
“These people that are getting no detects, I think should be extremely careful,” Rakoczy said, citing national reports.
In 2011, following seven years of studies, results from thousands of people who live in the Ohio River Valley who were tested for PFCs exposure as a result of a class action lawsuit were released. 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.
Dr. Eden V. Wells, the chief medical executive for DHHS, said more medical studies are needed to determine the health impacts of PFCs exposure. She repeatedly used the phrase that the state is giving out the water filters to impacted residents as an “exercise of extreme caution.”
“Right now, we need to be suspicious, and therefore err on the side of caution,” Wells said.
Some residents requested filters for every faucet in their homes, while others, such as resident Leslie LeBlanc, requested a filter be placed at the main source where water comes into homes.
“Whoever is in charge of that, I don’t think it’s too outlandish to ask,” LeBlanc said.
Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Vadnais, the adjutant general and the director of the DMVA, said 100 National Guard bases and 75 Air Guard bases are wrestling with the same issue.
“This is not just a Grayling problem,” he said. “This is a national problem.”
As the meeting got testy at times, in the sweltering heat, Vadnais came to the defense of state officials who were there to address weary property owners. He also stressed that the airfield is federally owned property, but there were no representatives from federal agencies present at the meeting.
“I’ve got to tell you, we’re trying to do our damnedest to do the right thing,” Vadnais said. “There is a lot of work, there are a lot of people who are working hard to try to solve this for you, and I just ask you to keep that in mind.”
The Grayling Army Airfield was built during World War II, with its primary purpose to house planes used in defense of the Soo Locks. Over time, the Grayling community has developed around the airfield as it has continued to be used by the military and in different configurations for civilian pilots.
Following a May 18 meeting to address potential groundwater contamination, the DEQ tested water wells used by the City of Grayling. Last week, results from one well tested positive for one part per trillion for PFCs. That well was not being used to provide drinking water for the community prior to the testing.
“Right now, I am not putting that well back on line,” said Kyle Bond, the superintendent for the City of Grayling’s Department of Public Works.
Bond said the compounds found in the well are not similar to those being found at the airfield, and are not among the 15 compounds listed on the EPA’s health advisory. He believes the compounds in the water are from atmospheric contamination, either from a pipe in the water system or another factor. More testing will take place.
Richard Benzie, from the DEQ’s drinking water and municipal water division, said other communities, including Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, have had positive results for PFCs in their drinking water well sources.
Benzie said he does not believe the firefighting foam is the source for the positive test result in Grayling.
“We don’t think it’s related – at least not yet – but that is part of what our sister agencies will find out on the nature and extent of this contamination,” he said.
Christina Bush, a toxicologist for the DHHS, said there are no health advisories urging people not to eat fish caught from the AuSable River due to tests conducted by Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Dr. Stephen Hussey, from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said pets should not consume the water if it has been deemed unsafe for human consumption. He added that if pet owners are concerned about the health of their animals, they should consult with a veterinarian, but would have to so at their own expense.
If there are some positive outcomes from the water testing, resident Mark Jurkovich said neighbors are talking with each other and getting to know each other better. He said the community needs to work hand-in-hand with military leaders in continued support for those who defend the country.
“It’s time to come together and to take this problem on and fix it,” Jurkovich said. “I don’t see what any more anybody can do. We’re worried about a couple of PFC modules, and some of these people have been dodging bullets.”
Military officials plan to hold a follow up town hall meeting this fall.
The DEQ has assumed the operation of the environmental assistance center for issues regarding the Grayling Army Airfield. For assistance, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-662-9278.