GRAYLING — Deep within the northwoods is a small town known for its crystal clear waters and its namesake military base.
Grayling is home to Camp Grayling, the primary training facility for the Michigan National Guard and the largest U.S. National Guard training installation nationwide. Generations of troops have trained there and civilian and military employees based their lives in the community.
Camp Grayling pumped an estimated $25.9 million into the economy last year through payroll, operations and construction projects, according to Michigan National Guard figures.
But that’s not all from the camp that has found its way into the community: A toxic plume of PFAS chemicals currently seeps through the area’s groundwater and into local surface waters, the result of decades of using and training with firefighting foam that contains the noxious materials.
Officials don’t know how big the contamination plume is, let alone what it will take to clean up the pollutants and restore clean water to the hundreds of homes now stuck with PFAS-laced drinking water wells — crystal clear water that can’t be trusted.
Michigan National Guard officials first tested for PFAS — an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — in the groundwater more than two years ago at its Grayling Army Airfield along Old U.S. Highway 27.
A monitoring well along the southern end of the airfield installed to gauge concentrations of another pollutant, trichloroethylene, or TCE, also detected PFAS in the fall of 2016, making Camp Grayling among the first PFAS contamination sites identified in Michigan, said Jonathan Edgerly, environmental manager for Michigan Army National Guard.
The discovery was reported up the chain of command and orders came back within days to coordinate with state and local officials to sort out next steps, he said.
“Nobody was really well-versed yet,” Edgerly said.
PFAS chemicals are considered emerging contaminants in the scientific community, and scientists aren’t sure how they move through groundwater, nor how to stop their spread.
PFAS chemicals do not break down in the environment, and models established to determine how other contaminants move through groundwater don’t work for PFAS, said Steve Sliver, executive director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.
“It doesn’t behave like the other contaminants we are used to chasing,” Sliver said.
Camp Grayling officials tested nearly 200 drinking water wells in nearby Sherwood Forest neighborhood in the spring after the PFAS discovery at the airfield, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — now the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE — took over testing in June 2017. Since then, three designated PFAS contamination zones connected with Camp Grayling have been identified, including the airfield, Lake Margrethe, and the Maneuver Area Training Equipment Site known as MATES at Range 30.
State records show more than 1,100 drinking water samples have been tested through spring this year. Of those, nearly 300 tested positive for some level of PFAS contamination. Officials found 19 homes with PFAS levels at or beyond the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory standard for lifetime exposure — 70 parts per trillion — 17 near the airfield and two near Lake Margrethe. Hundreds more residential well samples returned levels between that concentration and non-detection.
Randy Rothe, EGLE district supervisor, said state officials will develop a cleanup plan in conjunction with military officials, but first they must find the plume’s boundaries, a problem complicated by contamination zones that straddle the AuSable and Manistee river watersheds.
“We don’t have our arms around this plume yet,” Rothe said.
Some area residents are fed up with the waiting.
Fred Fischer said his well tested at 120 ppt, making it among the highest concentrations found in Grayling. He said he grew impatient waiting for military officials to fix the problem, so he paid for a whole-house filtration system to be installed at his home just south of the airfield boundary.
“It’s been two years already,” Fischer said.
Neighbors Chad Ventline and Todd Willoughby live east of the airfield in Grayling and agreed they’d like an action plan developed soon. Both said they are eager for the military to do something, rather than seemingly endless testing and talking about the PFAS contamination.
“The military is trying to wash their hands of it,” Ventline said. “Don’t get me wrong, the military has done a lot of good for this town. They didn’t know it was bad back then, but that doesn’t make the local community responsible for it.”
Ventline said his family uses bottled water for cooking and drinking, while Willoughby said District Health Department No. 10 officials installed a special filter in his kitchen to purify water from his well. Willoughby said he’s not entirely sure how safe it is, though health officials said the filters are effective.
“Right now we don’t have much other choice,” Willoughby said.
The district health department offered bottled water for one year and continues to provide a kitchen sink-mounted charcoal filtration system for any household where the drinking water well tested positive for PFAS, no matter what level, said Jeannine Taylor, the department’s public information officer.
Fires, training, dumps and spills
Review of a consultant company’s preliminary assessment report to the Army National Guard shows frequent use of the aqueous film-forming foam with PFAS during the 1970s and 1980s, often called AFFF or “wet water.”
“Wet water” was for training activity at the airfield and other sites, as both military and civilian firefighters prepared to battle blazes stoked by liquid fuels. Training involved “igniting approximately 5 gallons of ... jet fuel, or a mix of gasoline and diesel fuel, spread on the ground or within a brush pit and using AFFF to extinguish the resulting fire,” according to the federal report funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Officials also used the foam to fight wildfires, prescribed burns and any fires ignited by weapons training activities, even a mock drill of a helicopter crash. Fires were described as a “routine occurrence,” especially during the area’s active springtime fire season. Those interviewed for the federal report remembered as many as 26 fires that happened in one weekend at the Range 40 Complex alone.
But not all of the PFAS releases into the environment were because of regular military activities or emergency responses. Much of the contamination came from direct dumps or spills.
Multiple fire trucks with holding tanks filled with the foam and water remained on standby through the 1970s until about 1986, where the tanks leaked about 80 gallons each day and were “topped off every night with AFFF (unknown concentration) and water,” the report states.
Edgerly said the firefighting foam was “super corrosive” and would eat away at nozzles and seals on fire trucks, causing leaks. It required frequent maintenance, he said.
The federal report explains how officials would perform nozzle checks on the tanks, a process that involved discharging the foam directly into surface waters.
“Fire truck tanks were washed out into Lake Margrethe as regular practice during routine maintenance. The frequency and quantity of tank washout is not known. Since AFFF was regularly used as ‘wet water’ in truck tanks during the 1970s and 1980s, PFAS may have been directly washed into the lake,” the report states.
Military personnel even used the foam for dust suppression, spraying it onto unpaved roads, most often along West Lewiston Grade Road during two decades of summer training activities, according to the report.
Rothe said nobody in the military or civilian fire departments knew the foam was toxic during that time, and its use for dust control around Grayling likely was meant to “use up” chemicals near the end of their shelf life.
The foam isn’t used anymore, but a recent survey of the state’s fire departments turned up 37,000 gallons of the firefighting foam with PFAS remains stocked statewide for emergency responses, Sliver said. He said state officials are developing a process to collect and properly dispose of those contaminant-laced firefighting foams.
The hazardous foam is no longer stocked at Camp Grayling, military officials said.
National Guard officials established what the military calls a Restoration Advisory Board to take on Camp Grayling’s PFAS pollution. It’s part of a two-pronged approach — short- and long-term — to deal with the emerging contaminant and includes members civilians who’ve been impacted by the pollution.
Col. Bill Myers, director of installations and environment for the National Guard, visited Grayling in late June for a public discussion of a rapid-response effort to provide safe drinking water to homes where PFAS concentrations in well water meet or exceed 70 parts per trillion. He said he would take public feedback to Washington, D.C., before a recommendation is handed down.
The National Guard Bureau is expected to decide among three possible options to address the 17 private water wells near the airfield that turned up the highest PFAS concentrations. The options include: drill deeper wells to reach groundwater beneath the toxic plume; extend municipal water mains from nearby Grayling city lines; or, develop a new township-owned municipal water supply system. Estimated costs range from $2.6 million to $5.7 million.
“It’s not taking care of the contamination. It’s just getting those people clean water,” said Col. Edward Hallenbeck, Camp Grayling’s commanding officer.
Both EPA and state EGLE officials are reviewing those standards. And a state science advisory work group on June 27 recommended health-based values for seven types of PFAS chemicals in drinking water, including 8 ppt for PFOA and 16 ppt for PFOS, the two most common in the family of chemicals, nearly three times less than the EPA’s lifetime exposure advisory level.
Myers said potential changes to EPA or state regulations could change the National Guard’s plans. It may include households that tested positive for lower concentrations in the rapid-response effort.
“We are going to adjust to that standard,” he said.
A new state standard for PFAS levels in drinking water isn’t expected to be finalized until April next year after the state’s regulation development process. That means PFAS testing results from as many as 300 households around Grayling may fall within the new recommended health level parameters. But final rules are months away.
Myers also talked about Camp Grayling’s long-term goal to clean up the pollutants in both the soil and groundwater, a process that may take years. He said it’s an environmental problem the military is committed to solve for the entire community, not just those with PFAS concentrations in their drinking water beyond the federal advisory level.
“We used this stuff so the National Guard and (U.S. Department of Defense) is taking responsibility for that,” Myers said, later adding the historic use of firefighting foam with PFAS in it can’t be changed but a solution can be found.
“If we don’t address it, it will carry on forever,” Myers said.
Meanwhile the Restoration Advisory Board, known by acronym RAB, will prepare to meet and serve in an advisory capacity to the National Guard. It’s tasked with public discussions about the ongoing environmental assessment and restoration activities.
At least one RAB member, Grayling Township Supervisor Lacey Stephan said he’s not thrilled two of three possible solutions for clean water for affected residents will result in residents having monthly water bills to pay. That’s not acceptable, he said.
“They didn’t have a water bill before this contamination. They shouldn’t have one after, either,” Stephan said. He added residents are scared, angry and concerned about possible health ramifications.
“They are wondering when they are going to get clean water and who is going to pay for it,” Stephan said. “We understand a fix is coming, we just don’t know what it is yet.”