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Air Force says new Michigan water law is discriminatory
Mike Fritcher

The Air Force said it will not comply with a new Michigan safe water law because it says it is discriminatory.

The decision will delay any large-scale Air Force intervention in Oscoda - where chemicals leaked from the former Wurtsmith Air base into residential water wells.

Health officials and lawmakers were hopeful the new state water standards would allow the Air Force to take action in Oscoda.

The Air Force had previously said it could take action only if the chemicals exceeded a health advisory limit set by the EPA - but, it said, it would defer to any state advisory standards.  Now Michigan has established new standards.

Mark Kinkade is with the Air Force. He said the Air Force can’t comply with the new law because it is discriminatory.

“Largely because the law is not one of generally applicability, which means it only applies to federal and state agencies, it doesn’t apply as written to all entities or persons who may have impacted the water of state citizens.”

As of January the The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had identified 300 wells impacted by chemicals that leaked from the former air base. Only one was over the limit set by the EPA.

Kinkade said the Air Force was quick to address that well.

“We gave them bottled water and then we hooked them up to the municipal water supply.”

Residents and the local health department are hoping for Air Force support to get all of the households with impacted wells hooked up to the municipal water supply - regardless of whether those wells exceed federal advisory limits.

Chuck Lichon is with the Health Department overseeing Oscoda. He said his understanding was if the Michigan standard was lowered, the Air Force would step in.

“The air force initially last year I believe, last fall, said they would follow whatever the requirements are, that requirement was adjusted and now they seem to be reneging on it.”

The new Michigan safe water law didn’t actually change health advisory standards. Instead it says responsible “state or federal agencies” must offer alternative access to water if several conditions are met, conditions like if a health advisory was issued for drinking water in the area or if the government acknowledges the substance of concern had migrated from the property.

Kinkade, with the Air Force, said it’s the ‘state or federal agencies’ line that makes the law discriminatory. And he said concerns about how the law was being written were raised early on.

“It’s important to understand the Air Force, or Department of Defense, provided input in the early drafts of that law to explain the concerns we had with it. It doesn’t look like those concerns were considered or at least put into the law as written.”

Kinkade also said the Air Force hasn’t gotten enough attention for the work it’s already done.

“We’re taking the steps that the law calls out but we’ve been doing that on our own. What we’re saying is the law as written is not applicable because it’s discriminatory. And we also follow the health advisory limit. That’s the other line we have to follow.”

But for Chuck Lichon, with the local health department, just following protocol hasn’t been enough to meet the community's needs.

“There’s an issue here and they have to deal with the community in that area. I think if they just follow technical protocol that’s going to cause some issues for them in dealing with the community in terms of extending municipal water to that area.”

Whether the state and Air Force will work together to move impacted wells to the municipal water supply remains to be seen.