Community involvement critical in Wurtsmith environmental progress 

  • Published
  • By Mollie Miller
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – Air Force Civil Engineer Center's base realignment and closure environmental coordinator Steve Willis knows when it comes to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) cleanup at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan, communication and community involvement are keys to success.    

“Wurtsmith is a very dynamic site with a highly engaged community,” he said. “We need to effectively communicate our progress so that everyone has a greater understanding of what is being done to address past Air Force releases of PFAS at the former base.”  

PFAS are a group of synthetic fluorinated chemicals found in industrial and consumer products including specialized foam that was used to extinguish fires at the one-time combat crew and bomber training base. PFAS impacts at the former Wurtsmith AFB were first identified in 2010 by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Since then, the Air Force’s priority has been ensuring water potentially affected by PFOS or PFOA from mission activities meets the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 lifetime health advisories for PFOS and PFOA.  

Willis said that while strides have been made in the cleanup efforts at the former base, the level of communication about those successes has been inconsistent. Now the Air Force is exploring more opportunities to engage the community and provide information about the investigation and cleanup at Wurtsmith.   

In addition to quarterly Restoration Advisory Board meetings, which have been held for several years, engagement plans include offering more face-to-face communication and additional two-way learning opportunities. On Oct. 26 and 27, a team of Air Force environmental experts and managers led a two-day public event that included a tour of an $11 million filtration system designed to remove PFOS and PFOA from groundwater, and a technical training session to explain what a conceptual site model is and how it’s used to support the investigation and cleanup of environmental contamination.  

“We have been sharing information about the work at Wurtsmith but many in the community hadn’t had the opportunity to physically see what was being done,” Willis said. “I think the tour and technical workshop provided the community an opportunity to see firsthand what we are doing and the tools we use to address PFAS associated with the former base.”  

The Air Force’s efforts to increase transparency have met with a positive community response. Former Michigan environmental regulator Bob Delaney has been part of the former Wurtsmith project for many years. During that time, he said he has seen significant fluctuation in the Air Force’s transparency, but the recent technical meeting was a good opportunity to share information. 

“Getting to talk to the technical people and understand what they are seeing and helping them to understand what we are seeing is huge,” he said. “In the past we felt like we were only being fed a little of the information. It was good to get with the technical experts who are on the ground doing the work.”  

Peggy Lewis has lived in the area for more than 50 years and traveled 30 miles to attend the late October site tour.   

“I’m impressed with the work the Air Force is putting into the Wurtsmith project. They are seriously trying to get rid of this problem,” she said. “I get the impression the people involved have made this personal and I feel like they are going to make this cleanup happen.”  

Air Force organizers were pleased at the number of people who participated in recent engagement events at Wurtsmith, emphasizing the attendance shows efforts to reach deeper into the communities are working.    

“We value the connections we made and the conversations we had during the recent tour and workshops,” said Kate Lynnes, senior technical advisor in the Environmental Restoration Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety, and Infrastructure. “We hope events like this will continue to offer community members the information they need as we work as a team to address the PFAS impacts from historical Air Force activities.”  

The Air Force also held its quarterly Restoration Advisory Board meeting on Nov. 16 at the Oscoda United Methodist Church. The AFCEC team provided an update on the PFAS remedial investigation and other restoration activities to include what will be the former AFB’s newest interim remedial action at what was the alert aircraft area on the northeast side of the former installation.   

“The objective of this (action) is to hydraulically control the migration of higher concentrations of PFAS-impacted groundwater by pumping and treating it at a new granular activated carbon treatment system,” Willis said.  

Plans are already being made for the next technical workshop at the former Wurtsmith AFB. Willis is encouraging community members to reach out with suggestions for topics or any other ideas for how to make the event even better.   

“The Air Force has made significant progress investigating PFAS impacts associated with the former Wurtsmith AFB, as well as implementing interim remedial actions to reduce PFAS impacts to both Van Etten Lake and Clark’s Marsh,” he said. “We are looking forward to sharing this information as part of our continuing commitment to transparency.”     

For more information on upcoming meetings or to offer ideas for future workshops, contact Steve Willis at