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Paying for PFAS mess clean-up should be federal responsibility

K.I. Sawyer, a former U.S. Air Force base, has been identified in the proposed Filthy Fifty Act as a priority for clean up of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, as it is one of the state’s two most PFAS-contaminated bases.

This stems from U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills, introducing two new bills, the Clean Water for Military Families Act and the Filthy Fifty Act, which direct the Department of Defense to identify and clean up PFAS at U.S. military installations with some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination in the country.

The Filthy Fifty Act will set testing and cleanup deadlines for PFAS remediation at the most contaminated Department of Defense sites in the country and establishes a list of priority installations with 50 bases in the U.S. that have among the highest detections of PFAS.

It lays out timelines for testing, removal, and remediation, with the remediation portion of the bill directing the U.S. Secretary of Defense to “complete all physical construction required for the remediation of PFAS at all military installations, formerly used defense sites and state-owned facilities of the National Guard in the United States,” no later than 10 years after the enactment of the act.

This is a step in the right direction for addressing the PFAS contamination at Sawyer and the downstate Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which were named the two most PFAS-contaminated bases in the state.

The need for this type of federal involvement — particularly in terms of funding — is especially clear in light of the situation with PFAS-contaminated material at the K.I. Sawyer Waste Water Treatment Plant.

“This PFAS problem is believed to have stemmed from multiple sources of contaminations ranging from the Air Force’s discharging of Aqueous Film Forming Foam — AFFF — at and around the airport during their tenure and a small leak from one of the Sawyer fire trucks,” Sawyer Director of Operations Duane DuRay wrote in a letter to county officials. “These past issues have created a sizable problem at the (wastewater treatment plant) by contaminating two 750,000-gallon sludge storage tanks and the pretreatment lagoon of approximately 500,000 gallons.”

Testing at the K.I. Sawyer Waste Water Treatment Plant indicated elevated levels of PFAS were present in Class C biosolids, which had been historically disposed of through the land application process on county-owned land, but could not be disposed of in this way due to the elevated levels. The Marquette County Board of Commissioners recently approved implementing recommendations from GEI Consultants to dispose of the material.

This involves spending an estimated $2.63 million to dewater PFAS-contaminated biosolids and blend them with carbon, iron oxide, blast furnace slag, montmorillonite and Portland cement that will be poured into blocks and transported into a standard landfill. For the contaminated water, the county will seek funding for carbon filtration decontamination, which is estimated to cost around $329,000.

The estimated nearly $3 million total to dispose of this material is no small expenditure for a local unit of government to take on, as Marquette County Board Chairman Gerald Corkin noted: “We have to hold the Air Force accountable for their share before we start expending that money.”

The Department of Defense should be responsible for the planning, work and expenses associated with cleaning up the “forever chemicals” their operations left behind in Marquette County. It’s an age-old principal: you make the mess, you clean it up.

Furthermore, local units of government simply do not have the financial resources to deal with the massive clean-up operations needed to handle PFAS, and the problem needs to be addressed in a timely manner that is often prevented by the financial reality of smaller local units of government.

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