Oscoda Township Town Hall Meeting

PFAS From Wurtsmith AFB Is Leaking Into Drinking Water

Recent tests on parts of Michigan’s water supply confirmed the worst fears of many, and although Lake Huron’s Perfluoroalkyl Sulfonate levels are low right now, they could climb much higher very quickly.

More than 260,000 people in a seven-county area draw all or most of their drinking water from Lake Huron, where scientists recently found PFAS levels at almost 14 parts per trillion, a level that many jurisdictions, including New Jersey, consider unsafe. In 2017, municipal water technicials found much higher levels around Whitestone Point near the Au Gres River close to the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. This river is one of Lake Huron’s primary sources, so fish and humans alike could be affected. As a result, the state Department of Environmental Quality advised area communities to immediately explore alternative water treatment options, mostly because conventional treatments do not remove PFAS.

Some officials downplayed the findings, while others were very concerned. Responding to these fears, some municipalities began using expensive PFAS detection equipment. Plainfield Township, where chemical levels are already at 7 ppt, recently installed a $400,000 carbon-based detection system.

“When we read the reports in other communities, it wasn’t something we thought we’’ have a problem with,” remarked Saginaw Water Director Kim Mason. “I can’t say it’s completely shocking, but it isn’t something I thought would be a concern looking at the source of water we’re using,” she added.

PFAS and Wurtsmith AFB

In the early 1920s, local residents raised a then-staggering $600 to make way for Camp Skeel, which was renamed Wurtsmith Air Force Base in 1942. With three full-length concrete runways, the new facility was significantly larger and served as the hub of operations throughout the area for the duration of World War II.

During the Cold War, Wurtsmith was part of the Strategic Air Command and housed a number of B-52 bombers. The base closed shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Along with its rich military history, Wurtsmith has an equally-rich history of area water poisoning. In the 1970s, the Air Force used PFAS-laced firefighting foam. The fire squad remained onsite even after the base closed, and the team used this same foam when a major fire broke out at Oscoda High School in 1995. Subsequent testing revealed PFAS levels as high as 100 parts per trillion in some wells around the school. Levels around the river may be equally as high.

“If you pull the water out of the ground in that training area, it still foams, there’s so much in there,” said Michigan DEQ Specialist Robert Delaney.

There is no consistent standard for PFAS exposure levels, but many studies suggest that any exposure could be very dangerous.


The Dangers of PFAS

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, including PFAS and PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid), form a strong chemical barrier between two different substances. So, PFOA and its ilk have been used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products since it was first synthesized in the 1940s. Some common ones include:

  • Firefighting foam, like the product used at Wurtsmith AFB,
  • Stain-resistant upholstery and carpet,
  • Nonstick cookware, and
  • Fast-food wrapping.

Even though DuPont, PFOA’s primary manufacturer, has known about the chemical’s dangers since at least the 1960s, it is still produced in large quantities.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently lowered its PFOA exposure standards in response to new evidence of the chemical’s health hazards. Some of these issues include:

  • Testicular cancer,
  • Liver disease,
  • Kidney cancer,
  • Thyroid disease, and
  • Cardiovascular issues, such as high cholesterol levels.

PFOA is especially harmful to pregnant women and young children. Strong, artificial chemicals like this one often cause birth defects and other such issues in fetuses, including VLBW (very low birth weight). Many mothers suffer from PIH (pregnancy-induced hypertension), have problems breastfeeding, and experience other problems.

There are other adverse effects as well. PFOA causes liver cancer in rainbow trout and it is almost equally as dangerous to other lake and river-dwelling animals. High PFOA levels also drive down property values and force area residents who sell their homes to pay for expensive tests. Local governments incur cleanup costs as well, and many times, these expenses are passed on to residents.

Legal Options

Negligence is often the best legal options in all kinds of tort cases, including mass environmental torts like groundwater poisoning cases. The theory is easy for jurors to follow and damage awards are usually quite high. But negligence isn’t always available in PFOA cases for various reasons. Some other theories include:


  • Trespass: If the victim/plaintiff has a private water well, that possessory interest is often enough to support a trespass claim. This theory often carries more force with a jury. When we hear “trespass” we think of a violent and intentional intrusion, but when we hear “negligence” we think of accidental carelessness.
  • Public Nuisance: This tort’s definition varies by jurisdiction, but it usually encompasses an activity that may have some legitimate use but has substantial harmful side-effects. Some jurisdictions, including New York, also require a special injury, so the claim may only be available to people with private water wells.

In all these cases, damages include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. In large class-action suits, the tortfeasor (negligent actor) often must also pay for water cleanup and other remediation services.

The chemical companies which pollute our water should have to clean up their own messes and pay damages to boot. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC. We do not charge upfront legal fees in negligence cases.