‘Ain’t going nowhere’: How communities contaminated by PFAS are moving forward
On the surface, Van Etten Lake looks just like any other lake in Northern Michigan.
Except on the beach, there’s a sign posted by the Michigan Department of Health. It warns swimmers to avoid foam because it “may” contain PFAS.
But there’s no question: this lake does contain PFAS. It’s across the street from the former Wurtsmith Airforce Base — a known source of PFAS contamination in Oscoda.
“I personally wouldn’t swim in that lake,” said community activist Cathy Wusterbarth.
Wusterbarth, an Oscoda local, used to swim in Van Etten lake — a lot, as a lifeguard.
Wusterbarth said she believes the breast cancer she developed at 28 was from the lake. She cites the health department’s definition of “prolonged exposure” to foam that poses a health risk: 3 hours per day, 5 days per week, 3 months a year.
“Those numbers, that’s basically a lifeguarding seasonal shift,” she said.
PFAS were first found on the former air force base in 2010, but residents didn’t know about the contamination until six years later. Today, Oscoda has five advisories that warn residents of PFAS in drinking water, venison, small game, fish and foam.
“We all thought country water’s supposed to be good for you — clear, straight from the ground, doesn't get any better,” Sandy Wynn-Stelt said.
Wynn-Stelt is a community activist in Belmont, a township near Rockford that’s also been battling contamination. The polluter in her case was Wolverine Worldwide.
In 2017, Wynn-Stelt learned the water she had been drinking for decades was part Scotchgard.
“It's like a bad Stephen King novel when people from environmental quality show up at your door,” Wynn-Stelt said.
She said the water contained about 500 times more PFAS than what was considered safe at the time.
“My neighbors and I were livid … that a company could dump that much waste in a landfill,” Wynn-Stelt said. “And we were allowed to build around it and sank wells and nobody thought at that time, ‘Hmm, what could go wrong with us?’”
Wynn-Stelt said she didn’t really know her neighbors until about five years ago when they started talking about the contamination in their backyards.
“And literally one day, we had everybody at my house to try and figure out what to do about it,” she said. “It was what I like to call a PFAS AA meeting because everybody went around and said who their what their name was, where they lived, or what their levels were.”
In the end, neighbors bonded over the chemicals they all hated.
“I've just amazing neighbors in the neighborhood,” Wynn-Stelt said. “So I can tolerate looking at the dumpsite… I ain't going nowhere.”
Scott Dean is the communications advisor with the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. He said all public water systems are required to be tested for PFAS. The state also samples in what it calls “obvious” locations like industrial sites and former military bases.
“We've worked very hard to really try to be targeted and do the most good as quickly as possible on this journey to reduce Michiganders exposure to PFAS,” Dean said.
If PFAS are found in drinking water, state officials will typically expand testing, host public meetings, provide filters and add water treatment facilities.
“When you discover contamination, you want to eliminate it immediately,” Dean said. “The reality is, particularly when you're dealing with such ubiquitous compounds, finding the resources and finding the responsible parties, to remedy the situation takes time.”
As what are considered “safe” levels of PFAS continue to drop, more communities may be considered contaminated in the coming years.
But PFAS are also known as forever chemicals. They don’t break down, and there are still limited options for cleaning them up.
Back in Oscoda, Wusterbarth said she’s not sure if the advisories will ever be lifted. She said she still has hope for the town's Lake Huron beach.
“It’s hard to fight a fight like this against the big dogs,” Wusterbarth said. “We got the Department of Defense, federal government, the EPA... And we’re just little ole’ Oscoda, so what do we think we’re doing in this fight? But we do it anyways.”
This story is part one of WCMU's series on Demystifying PFAS, where we explore what a future with forever chemicals may look like.