“No Defense” explores PFAs pollution on the former Wurtsmith Air Force base

Feb 10, 2020

A new documentary will look at the Air Force's involvement in PFAs pollution around the former Wurthsmith Air Force base in Oscoda.


PFAs are a family of chemicals found across the state, particularly around current and former military bases, and linked to health problems including cancer.

Oscoda residents say the Air Force has not done enough to clean up existing pollution and some veterans of the base allege that they have seen health impacts because of their exposure to PFAs chemicals.

The Air Force has maintained it is following EPA guidelines for cleanup of contaminated sites.

Ben Thorp sat down with Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Sara Ganim and Anthony Spaniola, who owns property in Oscoda, to talk about the documentary…

Ben: Sara, how did you get involved with this and when did you realize this would take the full investigation of a documentary?

Sara: That’s a great question. I was actually doing research for a book about drinking water in America and the people who are dealing with water they cannot drink and the obstacles they face but when I visited Oscoda I realized a couple of things. One that it’s a complex story with the potential to affect a lot of people outside of Oscoda, outside of the state of Michigan and it deserved more than a mention in a chapter of a book. That was number one. The second thing was that it is an incredibly visual story. Seeing the foam on Van Etten lake is one of the most impactful parts of that and I didn’t want to lose that. I wanted people to feel the same way I did when I visited.

Ben: Maybe you want to talk about the scope of this story. Are you both looking at the history of pollution on this base and then how the Department of Defense has responded to calls for clean up? Are you trying to give a full overview with this documentary?

Sara: It really is a two part story the way that I see it. It is about the historical contamination and bases like Wurtsmith all across the country where there were decades where this stuff was being pushed into the ground and it wasn’t dealt with properly. The people who worked there, the veterans who worked on those bases, the civilians living near or working on the bases and the impact that’s had on them in their lives today. The fact that the government hasn’t reached out to help them or even let them know the risk that they took. So that’s part one.

Then there’s the current day, there’s right now. That’s in the past. There’s one thing to be said about whether they are dealing with the past correctly. But even as we sit here right now the contamination continues and this chemical continues to leech into the environment. There’s nothing being done to stop that. There really are two parts to this - the historical aspect which you mentioned and then the present day and the lack of political will to deal with it right now.

Ben: Maybe you can talk about how this is an issue that impacts more than just Oscoda. This is something that may have impacts for the rest of the country.

Sara: You know by the military’s own admission there are more than 400 sites across the country where this is a problem. Beyond that the fact that the United States Government, the EPA, does not regulate this chemical that affects more than just those 400 towns that affects every  town, everyone, whether it be a military base or a factory, some sort of private industry, every place where PFAs contamination is a problem and it’s affecting drinking water, surface water, air quality. All it goes back to the fact that the government doesn’t want to regulate this chemical. The question we’re asking is part of that because they are one of the biggest polluters of this chemical.

Ben: Anthony, this question is for you. We’ve talked before about how even our own congressional representatives have said it may take an act of congress to get the Air Force, the Department of Defense to take action at these sites. I wonder how you see the importance of a documentary like this in helping educate people?

Anthony: I think this is huge. This is going on in cities and towns all over the United States. Many of them, like Osocda, are not really in major media markets. For Sara and her crew to come to Oscoda and shine a light on what is happening there as the first military installation from which PFAs contamination was publically reported, now almost ten years ago, and with no plan in place, without even a timeline to have a plan, and the impact that innaction is having on real people in their real lives is a critical thing to get out into the public domain.

Ben: Sara, I’m wondering if there is anything that has surprised you or stood out to you as you’ve been working on this documentary?

Sara: That’s a great question. I think the reaction from government officials has been surprisingly flippant in a lot of cases. It’s pretty clear. The science is pretty clear and that’s not much of a debate. But there are some delay tactics that are pretty obvious. We’re going to keep studying this, we’re going to keep looking into this. There is a lot of information that pretty much exactly shows what the problem is. That kind of response that it’s going to take several more years before we react to it, or you know we have test results we’re going to wait a couple months before we release it to the public, there’s just this lack of urgency on the part of people who are supposed to be protecting citizens. That was surprising to me.

Ganim’s documentary, titled No Defense, will debut in Ann Arbor on February 19th.

You can find out more here

To find a trailer for the documentary you can visit the No Defense facebook page here.