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Wurtsmith tour, workshop raise mixed feelings among Oscoda residents

Wurtsmith Tour1
Teresa Homsi
Air Force senior project manager Paula Bond (left) and air force contractor Jim Romer (right) show where 12 new extraction wells were recently installed on the border of the Wurtsmith Air Force Base on an Oct. 26 tour. The wells pump PFAS-contaminated groundwater that's draining into Van Etten Lake to be treated at the CTS building.

What does it take to show transparency? Air Force officials were hoping an open house and a community tour on the air force's PFAS water treatment systems might do the trick.

It’s a cold and rainy day when a group of 50 - made up of up air force officials, contractors, and community members - gather in the Oscoda library.

“If anyone needs a map, just in case you get lost, let me know and I can give you a copy…” air force official Paula Bond said, addressing the crowd. “If we could consolidate that would be great, if we can, but we don’t have a bus, sorry.”

The first stop on the tour is the CTS building on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

“We welcome you here to the central treatment system,” an air force contractor said. “Please watch yourself, we're still in a state of construction.”

Here, four new granulated activated carbon (GAC) tanks have been installed in an attempt to stop PFAS-contaminated water from leaving the base.

Jim Romer is a project manager with Aerostar, an air force contractor. It’s a title he had to keep repeating on the tour, as residents immediately began asking him questions that can only be answered by the air force.

Resident: “The only reason I’m asking this, has there been any migration going south that you’re aware of? You know it’s hard to get answers from the Air Force, everyone knows that.”
Romer: “Right. Right, all I can say is they’re part of the RI…”

Teresa Homsi
PFAS-contaminated water is run through a granulated activated carbon (GAC) tank in an effort to filter it. The former Wurtsmith Air Force Base now has 11 GACs in total operating as interim remedial actions (IRAs) to address contamination. A long-term clean up plan has yet to be developed.

The Air Force said a long-term plan for cleaning up the base will be developed after the Remedial Investigation (RI) is complete. Romer said what he’s working on is a stop-gap measure.

“Keep in mind, this in and of itself, is not targeted at cleaning up a hotspot somewhere,” Romer said. “This is targeted at preventing additional migration off of this site into those receptors [like Van Etten Lake and Clark’s Marsh]. The [already contaminated] water that's in there, that has to be addressed in a different way.”

Homeowners said they had a couple of questions answered, but they’re skeptical. James and Marjorie Findley weren’t the only people I heard say that this tour might just be a “dog and pony show.”

Marjorie: “All you can do is go with what they’re saying. What people say and what people do isn’t always the same.”
James: “The problem is the canary in the coal mine, it died two decades ago. And that’s where the air force finally is.”

Kathrynn Lynnes is a senior remediation manager with the Air Force. She said it’s a new position that aims to restore trust and help with communication, brought in following the Aug. 1 hearing hosted by Senator Gary Peters.

Teresa Homsi
Kathrynn Lynnes (right) speaks with residents on the Oct. 26 tour of the PFAS water treatment systems on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. She is a senior remediation manager, brought in to restore trust and help with communication.

At a technical workshop hosted by the air force the day after the tour, Lynnes introduced herself as a “hands-on clean up nerd.”

“We want to understand what questions you have, whether it's about the process, whether it's about the technologies, whether it's about the data, how the data are presented…” Lynnes said.

The workshop was meant to explain the conceptual site model, detailing the layout of Wurtsmith in respect to contamination, but attendees do take on Lynnes’ initial invitation for questions.

David Winn is a community member on the Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board. He said the community has seen conflicting information on the range of contamination.

“For the past three or four years, we've seen the state have one set of plume maps and the air force have another set of plume maps,” Winn said. “We as a community have been saying, which one do we believe, right?”

Air force officials at the meeting said the concerns are noted and will be discussed with the state.

Winn: “So when does this happen? Next month? Next year?”
John Gillespie, a senior Air Force environmental engineer: “I think as a startup, we'll talk. Steve [Willis] will talk with EGLE folks.”

There were other points of conflict. Tony Spaniola, a homeowner in Oscoda, criticized the air force for releasing an environmental risk assessment, without taking public input.

“We need specific commitment, because we can't trust the Air Force,” Spaniola said. “They make these broad statements of transparency, engagement. Read the testimony. It's been in the congressional record over and over and over. Never happens, right back in the ditch.”

And there were other concerns like excluding key stakeholders from closed door meetings. The Air Force said that won’t change anytime soon. Kathryn Lynnes said their hands are tied by federal law.

“We're not trying to hide the data,” Lynnes said. “Because if it were up to me, I’d share it with you now, but we got to get past this legal hurdle. And we'll figure out a way to do it.”

Not all of the comments at the meeting were negative. Some attendees cautiously remarked they’ve seen more action, specifically from Washington, than ever before.

Either way, Lynnes said she understands her work is cut out for her. It’s going to take a lot to remediate the contamination and regain the trust of the people of Oscoda.

Extraction wells
Teresa Homsi
Twelve new extraction wells pump PFAS-contaminated groundwater away from Van Etten Lake to the CTS building for treatment on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corp Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She is covering rural environmental issues, public health and Michigan commerce. Homsi has a bachelor’s from Central Michigan University in environmental studies, journalism and anthropology. During her undergraduate, she was a beat reporter for CMU’s student newspaper Central Michigan Life and interned for the Huron Daily Tribune. She has also interned for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy in the superfund section. *Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms, more info at