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Oscoda residents wonder why state hasn't done more about PFAS foam

PFAS contamination affected Lake Van Etten in Oscoda, Michigan.
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio
PFAS contamination affected Lake Van Etten in Oscoda, Michigan.

Listen to today's Environment Report.

Van Etten Lake in Oscoda, Michigan is one of several sites around the state affected by PFAS contamination.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Van Etten Lake in Oscoda, Michigan is one of several sites around the state affected by PFAS contamination.

People who live in Oscoda are concerned about foam containing toxic chemicals known as per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances – or PFAS – that keeps appearing on Van Etten Lake.

The serene lake in Northeast Michigan is surrounded by trees and houses. But it also has foamy stuff that looks like soap scum floating along its shores.

Residents are wondering why the state isn’t doing more about it.

Wurtsmith Air Force Base is the source of ongoing contamination there. Private wells and bodies of water in the area have tested high for PFAS.

PFAS chemicals were used in firefighting foam at the air base over many years.

Ross Tingley and his wife Donna live on Van Etten Lake. He’s noticed the foamy chunks floating in several spots on the lake.   

“Well I’ve noticed it off and on now for a couple years. At first, I thought it was just the normal foam you see against the shore, but then I saw that it looked a little like plastic or something,” Tingley says.

Tingley says he wasn’t warned about the potential harm in the foam until last fall. He says he read a warning in the local paper.

“Stating to stay away from having kids in that water over by the park here because it was contaminated at high levels,” he says.

Around Labor Day, the District Health Department No. 2, the local health department that serves Oscoda, warned residents not to ingest any of the foam showing up on the lake.

Kory Groetsch is the Environmental Public Health Director with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. He says the state is aware of the foam and it wanted to make sure residents are too.

“So that they were aware that these perfluorinated chemicals were building up in the foam along the lakeshore,” Groetsch says.

Groetsch says right now, there is no concrete cleanup plan for the foam along the lake’s shoreline.

“We’ve been talking with the DEQ and they are looking at what further foam testing needs to be done,” Groetsch says.

Groetsch says he doesn’t know if the Air Force or the state would be responsible for the cleanup.

The DEQ did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Aaron Weed is the Oscoda Township Supervisor. He says he’s got a lot of questions for the state but few answers.  

“The DEQ has not been very communicative to us as to what is going on,” Weed says.

Like many, Weed is unsure of what the state is doing to remediate the issue.

“So far, it doesn’t seem anyone is addressing the foam,” he says.

Weed says he thinks Oscoda is being overlooked by the state because other PFAS contamination sites have been getting more press.

“The tannery over by Grand Rapids is starting to overshadow us. I’m not saying that’s a problem, but they should all be treated the same here,” he says.

A town hall meeting to address the PFAS contamination in Oscoda that was scheduled for last month was canceled. The state and Air Force have not announced when that meeting will be rescheduled.

The Air Force did not respond to a request for comment. 

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Bryce Huffman is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter. Huffman has been serving as a reporter for Michigan Radio since Fall 2016. He has covered a variety of Michigan stories, including immigrants facing deportation, the Detroit-area doctor involved in the female genital mutilation case, and residents concerned about a massive sinkhole in Macomb County. A Detroit native, Huffman graduated from Central Michigan University with a degree in Journalism. He joined Michigan Radio as a newsroom intern in May 2016.