Contaminated water still plagues lakeside community in Michigan

The EPA is set to release a national action plan for chemicals called PFAS.

February 11, 2019, 5:00 AM

On a December morning two years ago, Anthony Spaniola's wife looked out the window of their lakefront cabin in the northern Michigan town of Oscada and told him it had snowed.

But the foam whipping around his property in the wind wasn't snow.

Spaniola would later learn it was actually a chemical-laced substance that had formed on the surface of nearby Van Etten Lake. After testing the foam, state officials ultimately confirmed a connection to chemical compounds once used at a nearby Air Force base to extinguish jet-fuel fires.

Spaniola and his neighbors initially were told the foam was safe, but a month later were warned to steer clear and keep their pets and kids away from it. He sent pictures to local reporters and began reading about chemical compounds referred to as "PFAS" linked to health risks by some experts.

Foam gathers near the dam on Van Etten Lake in Northern Michigan, Sept. 4, 2018.
Courtesy Greg Cole
An April 2018 photo shows traces of chemicals in the water in Van Etten Lake in Northern Michigan.
Courtesy Catherine Gavin-Larive

Spaniola has since concluded the contamination wasn't an isolated incident.

"As I'm coming to the realization that this is a massive, widespread problem, they're just coming back matter-of-factly like, 'Yeah, you're right," he said of state officials.

Oscoda, and Michigan, are not unique. Communities around the country have discovered high levels of PFAS chemicals from military bases or manufacturing sites in water tested over the last few years.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which under President Donald Trump has rolled back a significant number of federal regulations, is expected to soon release a new national plan to address PFAS.

Whereas Trump officials often speak of government overreach and burdensome regulations, several members of Congress have said that if the EPA doesn't set stricter limits on manufacturing chemicals like PFAS, they will push for legislation that will.

The issue is so contentious that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has threatened to stall acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler's nomination to become administrator if the agency doesn't do more. Communities in Schumer's home state of New York are also dealing with high levels of PFAS contamination.

"We have one more chance to get the federal government to take a look and put out regulations about PFOA and PFOS, but the signs don't look good," Schumer said at a press conference last week. "I met with the nominee, Mr. Wheeler, and I asked him to put out these regulations, and he said he's not sure he would do it."

The EPA has said previously it could change the official designation of some types of PFAS chemicals to "hazardous," triggering more requirements to clean them up. But more recently, Wheeler has said he could not commit to setting mandatory limits on the chemicals when it comes to drinking water.

How a scenic lake community became contaminated

PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, can refer to hundreds of chemicals, including the kind linked to the foam on Van Etten Lake -- PFOS and PFOA.

In addition to military firefighting foam, which is still used today, PFAS chemicals are used in a variety of household items like carpets, nonstick cookware and food packaging.

The chemicals are so common that recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show almost everyone in the U.S. has a measurable amount of the chemicals in their blood.

Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda Township, Mich.
U.S. Department of Defense

In Oscoda, authorities tracked the contamination of Van Etten Lake to Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which closed in 1993. The base, like many other Air Force installations, used a specialized foam to put out fires.

PFOS and PFOA in that foam infiltrated drinking water wells on the base, leached into the groundwater and spread to a 8-mile plume that contaminated a nearby marsh, the Au Sable River, Van Etten Lake and Lake Huron, a source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.

A map shows the results of testing around Oscoda
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

Michigan began testing the Air Force base for PFAS and related chemicals in 2010. Two years later, a state environmental agency scientist warned of contamination, but most state and local officials were unaware of the findings until 2017, according to the state auditor's office.

Property near Oscoda, including Spaniola's cabin, eventually was classified as inhabiting a "zone of concern" over the chemical plume in October 2016.

It wasn't until 2017 -- seven years after the base testing and after a group of high school students visiting Van Etten Lake reported seeing the strange foam -- that a Michigan task force was flown in and authorities expanded testing to nearby bodies of water.

Residents concerned

Residents are still being advised not to eat fish from the Au Sable River or eat deer hunted in the area because of concerns linked to PFAS contamination.

Those restrictions are tough in a town like Oscoda, where locals work as lifeguards in the summer and eat fish caught in the Au Sable River. Seasonal visitors and outdoor activities like hunting and fishing are part of the local economy.

Meanwhile, recent research shows exposure to PFAS can contribute to immune system disorders and, at higher levels, to kidney disease, thyroid problems and even some kinds of cancer.

The science around this class of chemicals isn't advanced enough to link exposure to a diagnosis of a specific health problem, but toxicologist Richard DeGrandchamp said there is enough evidence to justify residents' concerns.

"For this particular group of compounds, they insidiously attack the immune system," said DeGrandchamp, who teaches toxicology and epidemiology at the University of Colorado and co-authored the 2012 report about the problems in Michigan. "And, unfortunately, many of our children living in the U.S. right now probably have immunocompromised immune systems."

Cathy Wusterbarth grew up around Van Etten Lake and worked as a lifeguard, as shown in this photo from August 1988.
Courtesy of Cathy Wusterbarth

Cathy Wusterbarth, who helped form an advocacy group called Need Our Water, or NOW, said she worked as a lifeguard on the lake for years when she was younger and also worked on the water as a civilian employee for the Air Force.

Wusterbarth said she was diagnosed with breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis the same year, when she was 28 -- conditions she thinks are due to her exposure to PFAS-related chemicals.

Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee invited Wusterbarth to the speech to highlight water contamination issues.
Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee invited Wusterbarth to the speech to highlight water contamination issues.

Wusterbarth recently attended the State of the Union as a guest of Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Oscoda and Flint, in a bid to bring attention to the contamination. Kildee recently launched a PFAS task force to help inform members of Congress about the problem.

"We want to be a catalyst for change and to help educate," Wusterbarth told ABC News.

Spaniola said he, too, blames his health problems on the contamination, even if he can't prove it definitively. He said he was diagnosed with celiac disease when he was 50 and his wife has thyroid issues that the couple attributes to exposure to the chemicals. He also said both their dogs died within a year of each other, which he called suspicious.

"When those dogs go up to Oscoda, they jump in the lake and they drink like crazy from the lake," he said. "Do I think PFAS had something to do with it? Absolutely, no doubt in my mind."

Mark Correll, the Air Force official in charge of environmental cleanups, said he understands the frustration from residents who fear they were exposed through other sources.

"They are not unjustified in being concerned, [because] we don't know what the health effects of PFOS and PFOA are," said Correll, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure.

The response

The Air Force first installed equipment to prevent contamination from spreading in 2015 and has since worked to upgrade systems that filter other kinds of contamination from the base to also handle PFOS and PFOA.

Air Force officials said they've tested private wells and public drinking water systems in the area and that no one is being exposed to PFOS or PFOA through drinking water. Only one well tested above the EPA recommendations at the time, and the Air Force has since connected that property to a public drinking water supply.

Officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said they blame the Air Force for not doing more to prevent contamination. Spokesman Scott Dean said in a statement to ABC News that officials are working aggressively to hold the Air Force accountable.

The office's aim "is to see these violation notices and the actions ordered result in a full remedy for the people of Oscoda," Dean wrote.

But the Air Force officials said they're still going through a federal dispute resolution process with the state, and the state can't accuse them of violating cleanup requirements while that process is still ongoing. They also said that since the Department of Defense is required to follow federal law in most cases, they can't follow the Michigan state law unless Congress specifically waives the federal requirement.

The EPA sets a recommended drinking water limit for PFAS chemicals, which isn't enforceable, and the agency doesn't have any rules on the books when the chemicals are detected in groundwater or surface water like the lake.

Correll said going forward that the Department of Defense wants to emphasize PFAS response needs a "whole of government response" from the national government, including addressing health effects and looking at other ways people are exposed such as through the food supply.

"Our view is that we have a responsibility but at the same time this is a much bigger problem," he said.

This report was featured on the Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, episode of ABC News' daily news podcast, "Start Here."

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