02.01.19

Peters Urges Air Force Cooperation with the State of Michigan on PFAS Cleanup Efforts Surrounding Former Wurtsmith Air Force Base

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Gary Peters (MI), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, urged Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson to cooperate with the State of Michigan on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) decontamination efforts in the area surrounding the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County, Michigan. In a letter to Secretary Wilson, Peters also invited her and Assistant Secretary John Henderson to meet with community members impacted by the contamination from the former base. PFAS are linked to health problems, including certain cancers, and families across Michigan and the nation have been exposed to dangerously high levels of PFAS through contaminated drinking water. Peters’ effort comes after news reports this week that the Air Force notified the state of Michigan that it would not make new efforts to cleanup PFAS in Iosco County and criticized the state Department of Environmental Quality.

“I am writing to express my significant concern that the United States Air Force is not working in good faith with the State of Michigan regarding environmental contamination surrounding the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County, Michigan…This aggressive and defensive posture amidst the ongoing dispute resolution process with the state is unproductive at best, and it concerns me that so little has been accomplished since PFAS was confirmed at Wurtsmith in 2010,” wrote Senator Peters. “The Air Force’s refusal to meet the state of Michigan’s water quality standards only serves to reinforce my sense that Congress must move swiftly to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to establish enforceable and protective federal standards.”

Surface water in Clark’s Marsh near the former Wurstmith Air Base has been found to contain PFAS levels of 42,000 parts per trillion, greatly exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recommended  standards. Last month, Peters met with Secretary Henderson, who made assurances that the Air Force would take steps to clean up the contaminated areas. Instead, the Air Force elected to claim sovereign immunity from state environmental quality regulations and water resources protection laws. Peters reminded Secretary Wilson that Congress has waived sovereign immunity for environmental cleanup purposes, and stated that the Air Force’s refusal to comply with  state established water quality limits suggested that Congress should act swiftly to  direct the EPA to establish enforceable federal standards.

Last year, Peters secured a provision in bipartisan legislation signed into law to give commercial airports the ability to discontinue the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS, since previous regulations requires the use of such foams. Additionally, Peters led two Senate Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management field hearings on determining the federal government’s role in addressing the PFAS crisis in Michigan and across the county.

The full text of the letter to Secretary Wilson is copied below and available here

January 31, 2019 

The Honorable Heather Wilson

Secretary of the Air Force

1160 Air Force Pentagon

Washington, DC 20330-1160

Secretary Wilson:

I am writing to express my significant concern that the United States Air Force is not working in good faith with the State of Michigan regarding environmental contamination surrounding the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County, Michigan.

You and I have discussed the issue of PFAS contamination on multiple occasions. Earlier this month I met with Assistant Secretary for Installations, Environment, and Energy John Henderson and was assured that the Air Force would be proactive in its approach, consistent with federal law rather than waiting an interagency approach or judicial process to mandate remedial action. 

I have since reviewed a December 7, 2018, letter sent from the Air Force Civil Engineer Center to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Resources Division in response to an October notice of violation Michigan issued to the Air Force.   I wish to underscore the seriousness of the violation – the PFAS levels for surface water in Clark’s Marsh measured 42,000 parts per trillion.  This is shockingly higher than not just state standards but also the lifetime health advisory limits established by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Yet the Air Force has opted to claim sovereign immunity from state environmental quality regulations and water resources protection laws. This aggressive and defensive posture amidst the ongoing dispute resolution process with the state is unproductive at best, and it concerns me that so little has been accomplished since PFAS was confirmed at Wurtsmith in 2010.

As you know, Congress has waived of sovereign immunity for purposes of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.  The Air Force’s refusal to meet the State of Michigan’s water quality standards only serves to reinforce my sense that Congress must move swiftly to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to establish enforceable and protective federal standards.

I invite you and Assistant Secretary Henderson to travel to Michigan and meet with the community in Iosco County impacted by the contamination at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base as well as with officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to ensure unity of effort on addressing PFAS contamination.

Sincerely,

Gary C. Peters

United States Senator 

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