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Michigan could enact strict PFAs standards. The Air Force may already have shown how it will respond


As Michigan considers strict standards for the cleanup of chemical contamination, developments in other states could indicate what the future of those standards will be.

At issue is PFAS contamination. PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of chemicals found across the state and linked to health problems including cancer.

New Hampshire has enacted rules for PFAs that are similar to rules currently being considered by Michigan.

Now, some New Hampshire residents say the Air Force has reneged on its promises to adhere to those standards and clean up PFAs contamination.

One source of PFAs pollution at sites across the state and country has been current and former military bases. The Department of Defense estimates 401 of its bases have some level of PFAs contamination.

States have begun to adopt strict standards for PFAs cleanup. Michigan expects to have new standards enacted by April.

At a September meeting in Oscoda, the site of the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, state officials said they planned to use these stricter standards to hold the Air Force accountable for cleanup.

Steve Sliver is with Michigan’s PFAs action response team.

“If Michigan promulgates MCLs lower than 70 will the Air Force comply with them? We’ve heard the Department of Defense say yes when those are enforceable state drinking water standards and we intend to hold them to that,” Sliver said at the time.

State officials declined to comment on whether this was still their understanding of the Air Force’s position.

But, in New Hampshire, where stricter PFAs standards went into effect this year, former lawmakers and some residents say the Air Force appears to have backed off on its promise to comply with the new standards.

Mindi Messmer  is a former Democratic State Representative in New Hampshire.  She helped pass the state’s stricter PFAs standards, and is a self described activist when it comes to PFAs issues. Messmer said the Air Force did indicate it would follow the state’s rules.

“Surprisingly, even though they had indicated that they would comply with state standards has now backed off on that, has reneged on that promise,” she said.

Specifically, Messmer said the Air Force declined to offer bottled water to residents whose wells exceed the new New Hampshire standards for PFAs contamination.

“We feel, and the State of New Hampshire has acted and agrees with us that it is important to protect our youngest and most vulnerable of our population from these toxic chemicals,” she said. “The Air Force not complying with that is very concerning.”

Messmer showed us a letter sent to a former constituent from an Air Force spokesperson, stating that the Air Force does not “have a timeframe for resolution of the discrepancy between federal levels and the new state regulations.”

Mike Wimsatt is the Director of the Waste Management Division of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. He said as far as he knows the Air Force has not yet taken an official position on whether it will follow New Hampshire’s PFAs standards.

“There’s no question this has been a source of frustration for us,” he said. “We certainly hope they will make a decision but in our view if a state promulgates an enforceable standard then the Air Force and Department of Defense should honor those standards when they are doing cleanup in those states.”

Messmer said she believes the Air Force is avoiding taking an official position - while at the same time notifying individuals that they will not be provided bottled water.

“The only way I found out about this was because a constituent forwarded an email to me from the Air Force,” she said. “They haven’t even publicly acknowledged they are going to do this. If you’re not going to do it say it and we’ll deal with it, but to be not straightforward about this is very concerning. I think it shows a lack of leadership and responsibility overall.”

A spokesperson for the Air Force said in a written statement that they have not changed their position on state regulations and are following a multi-step EPA cleanup process.

In response to a question about whether the Air Force would follow state standards stricter than the federal ones the spokesperson said “The Department of Defense evaluates state laws and regulations regarding PFAS for applicability and consistency of response actions among the military services.”

Tony Spaniola, who has a home in Oscoda, Michigan and has been fighting to hold the Air Force accountable for PFAs contamination there, said he thinks that response is consistent with the Air Force’s conduct. Spaniola said what is happening in New Hampshire comes as no surprise.

“It’s a function of slow walking and not wanting to spend a whole bunch of money all at once,” he said. “It seems to me they have a pretty long history of doing things like this.”

Spaniola said he thinks the Air Force may eventually get around to clean up.

“I think they’ll do it in dribs and drabs but I think we may all be dead by the time they get around to doing anything meaningful,” he said. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration but it’s not much.”

Ultimately, both Spaniola and Messmer said it may require an act of congress to get the Air Force to comply with state PFAs standards.