Testing for Grayling area groundwater contamination will carry on well into next year
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
Nine samples from water wells on the east boundary of the Grayling Army Airfield tested above a health advisory for chemicals linked to causing ill health effects in humans and animals and one sample tested at a low level for the compounds.
That is prompting military and health officials to expand testing of private water wells further away from the military installation.
A town hall meeting was held at the Camp Grayling Armory on Tuesday, Sept. 19, to release the latest results of water tests at the airfield.
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.
There are just over a dozen PFCs which were in common use including Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).
The EPA’s health advisory for the compounds is 70 parts per trillion.
Jonathan Edgerly, a natural resource analyst for the Michigan Department of Military & Veterans Affairs (DMVA), said 60 water samples were taken from 20 sites on the eastern border of the airfield in mid-August. Of those tests, 10 tested positive for PFOS compounds – nine above the health advisory and one below the advisory.
The initial 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.
Three homes tested above 70 parts per trillion, and were provided with an alternative source for drinking water by the District Health Department #10 (DHS #10).
Twenty other homes had low detection levels, and health officials recommended the use of under the sink water filters to continue human consumption.
A second round of water sampling is underway, but those results have not come back. Those wells include seven at the Grayling High School and two used by the City of Grayling to provide water through the municipal drinking water system.
Dave Lindsay, from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Gaylord field office, said the state has contracted with a nationally known environmental firm, with a background dealing with PFOS, to conduct the testing. He said it takes up to six weeks to get the test results back, especially since other communities across the nation are also dealing with the firefighting foam issue.
Lindsay said a groundwater investigation work plan will begin in mid-October east, north, and south of the airfield to determine if a plume of contamination has expanded and at which depths the compounds are located. The plan will include drilling 40 borings, and water will be sampled at 10 foot intervals down to depth of 100 feet.
Private water wells used by residents in the City of Grayling will also be tested.
Lt. Col. James Crowley, from the National Guard Bureau, addressed the dozens of citizens who attended the meeting. The bureau serves as a network between the state National Guards and the Department of Army.
Crowley said that an extensive study of all sources of contamination from the firefighting foam, the leadership elements that directed them, and conditions under which they were used such as fighting fires and training will be researched.
“By being deliberate, by taking all of the time to find the sources of the contamination, it will make sure that our solution is truly holistic and solves the problem for the entire community,” Crowley said.
Meanwhile, Lindsay said most residential wells that did not test positive for the compounds have been retested, but most of the results have not come back.
Residents whose water tested above the health advisory levels will have to continue to use water filters issued through DHD #10 if they choose to continue to drink and cook with the water.
“If you get a filter system, then you stop that exposure, therefore we’re not much worried about you,” Lindsay said.
Grayling resident Caroll Wakeley said she is not content using the filter for the long term.
“I’m not satisfied with the filter that I’ve been given,” Wakeley said. “I can’t imagine using this little candy cane filter on my kitchen sink for God knows how long until this gets fixed.”
Crowley said funds from the federal government’s Superfund Act would be sought to remediate the issues. The EPA’s Superfund program is responsible for cleaning up some of the nation’s most contaminated land and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills, and natural disasters.
“What happens in Michigan may set precedence for the nation, and what happens in Grayling may guide some of the decisions going forward,” Crowley said.
The studies could carry through to next spring or summer.
Grayling resident George Stancil questioned why the federal and state government are doing separate studies.
“Just the fact there are two large bureaucracies is going to slow things down,” Stancil said.
Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Vadnais, the adjutant general and the director of the DMVA, noted that the airfield is federal property while the remainder of Camp Grayling is owned by the State of Michigan. He added the work is seamless between the levels of government.
“What we’re trying to do is gather information as quickly and expeditiously as we can to determine the scope of the problem and begin remediation steps,” Vadnais said.
Grayling resident Lisa Burmeister questioned the effectiveness of whole house filters that have been purchased by some residents to deal with the contamination.
Lindsay said those filters have not been certified yet to eliminate PFOS from the water.
“There are just not certified now, although they may be effective,” Lindsay said.
Burmeister also asked why the AuSable River is being considered as a barrier for the contamination, since contamination near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base moved beyond a lake near Oscoda. The levels for PFCs in Oscoda far exceed what have been found in the Grayling area.
“If a lake by Oscoda is not a barrier, why are we thinking a much smaller river is going to be a barrier?” Burmeister asked.
Lindsay responded that some of the soil borings that will start in October will occur on the west side of the river.
Grayling resident Barbara Valentin raised the point that compounds are being placed back into the environment by residents who water their yards, flowers, and vegetables. She also questioned if the chemicals would remain in the plumbing fixtures of the home.
Lindsay acknowledged the water being used, which is not filtered, has much lower concentrations for the contaminants when being used outside of the home. He also said the compounds are highly soluble.
“It’s not going to adhere to your pipes,” Lindsay said. “It’s going to move with the water.”
Grayling resident Paul Williams questioned whether the compounds can be absorbed through a person’s skin.
Dr. Jennifer Morse, the medical director for DHD #10, said ingestion of the water is the main concern.
“The main concern is eating and drinking the water,” Morse said.
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 the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, suggested that people with preexisting medical conditions, in areas where the water in contaminated, consult with their doctors.
“Being aware is 90 percent of any battle,” Wells said.
Grayling resident Dave Dewar inquired about the movement of dirt on the Grayling Army Airfield and if there was a potential distribution of contamination.
Col. Edward Hallenbeck, the facilities and construction office director for the DMVA, said the dirt was moved prior to installation of a railroad spur which is used to bring military equipment and supplies in for training. He said the soils were tested, but no chemical compounds were discovered.
“I didn’t want to execute a contract, put a railhead in, and have to tear it out because of something there,” Hallenbeck said.
Crowley said the military’s first priority is to provide a safe source of drinking water for all residents impacted.
“We would do something that made sure you had clean drinking water,” he said.
Vadnais noted that the issue is personal since Camp Grayling has existed in Grayling for 104 years. He also drew attention to a couple of children who attended the meeting.
“I want to make sure the drinking water that they are drinking is as safe for them as I would for my own grandchildren,” Vadnais said.
Resident Mark Jurkovich commended officials for the work that has been done to address the water issue thus far, which was met with a round of applause.
“I would like to express my thanks for the work you all are doing and the way you taking a lead on this,” Jurkovich said. “It’s a problem and it’s our problem. I just appreciate it and it means a lot.”
The DEQ maintains the operation of the environmental assistance center for issues regarding the Grayling Army Airfield. For assistance, e-mail email@example.com or call 800-662-9278.
Updated information is also available at www.Michigan.gov/campgrayling.