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Investigation into PFAS at CRTC will yield cleanup plan

Courtesy Photo A group of firefighters train on fire suppression at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. The federal government and the state are working with local health officials to decide on a plan to clean up chemical contamination from the firefighting foam.

ALPENA — It has been nearly four years since the presence of perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid were discovered at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.

Today, the U.S. military, the state, and local health officials are moving forward to rectify the situation.

Cleanup efforts are still a ways off, however, as viable ways to remediate the area are still being explored.

Sampling and testing of drinking wells within a one-mile radius of the base continue, and nearly all tests have shown no unsafe water.

The government is currently exploring the best method to remediate the chemicals, which soaked into the ground during firefighting training over many years. The chemicals — also known as PFOS and PFOA, and collectively known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — were used in foam used to combat fires. The practice of using the foam with the chemicals has stopped.

The cleanup work could begin this year, officials said.

PFAS have been proven to have negative health effects and can cause several types of cancer if ingested in too large an amount, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.

In December, a phase-one kickoff meeting for the base cleanup was held with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Air National Guard, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and ATI-CTI, a contractor based in Maryland hired by the Air National Guard..

EGLE spokesman Dean Scott said the meeting was important to moving forward with cleanup efforts.

“At this kick-off meeting, there were high-level discussions on phase-one, remedial investigation work, and information sharing,” Scott said. “This work is expected to start this spring. This is the first step in defining the extent of the project starting with the on-base work. Phase two will follow that.”

Base Commander Col. Jim Rossi said testing will continue at the base as the investigation and planning continues.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed progress toward cleanup and said the investigation will show scientists what needs to be done to determine whether chemical plume has moved up or down, or spread further out. That data will help determine what remediation actions are needed.

“The sampling will determine the extent of PFAS impact,” Rossi said. “This will involve a contractor coming to the base to determine the exact extent of PFAS impact, including the horizontal and vertical extent of PFAS. They will also assess any risk to human health and the environment.”

Testing in the surrounding area, the Thunder Bay River, and in wildlife have found no levels of PFAS contamination above state or federal health guidelines.

A more severe contamination has taken place in Oscoda at the former Wurtsmith Air Force base, and, after 10 years of sampling and studies, remediation efforts are finally proceeding.

State Rep. Sue Allor, R- Wolverine, said, as with many things in government, cleanup of the contamination sites in the area has taken longer than she thinks is reasonable.

She said corrective action in Oscoda was a long time coming, and she hopes red tape can be cut to resolve the issues at the Alpena base more quickly.

“Within the federal government, the reaction to this emerging and real threat has been way too slow, when they have known about it for years,” Allor, who represents Northeast Michigan, said. “As I have been, I’m going to continue to work hard to make sure the PFAS issue isn’t forgotten. It has to remain in the forefront, and the people need to be alerted and kept up to date. I will continue to be involved very closely.”

Tests done by the federal government at the base in May 2017 detected PFAS in groundwater at levels above the federal Lifetime Health Advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. The state was notified of those results and got involved in October of that year.

Public educational meetings and informational sessions were held several times afterward, and testing of residential water wells started shortly after.

Last year, another round of testing was done and results released in April continue to show a very limited amount of the pollutants in drinking water.

The base is one of two Alpena locations contaminated with PFAS. At an old tannery on the city’s north side, the groundwater and soil was contaminated, and some PFAS has been discharged into the Thunder Bay River. The river and foam in it has been tested.

According to the state’s website, the highest concentration oF PFAS was detected in foam samples from the Thunder Bay River in April 2019, when 1,060 parts per trillion was recorded. There is no established health standard for foam, and that level was well below many places in the state where the same tests were done.

As more sampling near the base is conducted, residents will receive copies of the results and be offered filters to purify their water.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.

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