This account of the volatile chemical contamination at Wurtsmith AFB is brief, but it shows how pervasive the volatile chemical contamination problem was then and is today. Based on the record, my family arrived on the scene precisely when the severity of the problem first came into view in 1986, and we moved from Michigan precisely when base officials began to take actions to remove leaking tanks in 1990. The record shows very little activity between these dates. In fact, all Wurtsmith specific contamination assessment and health reports through today (there are many) reference many past authoritative reports and records before 1986 and after 1990. The absence of reports during our time at Wurtsmith is conspicuous at the least and is likely the time when base officials were assessing the scope of the contamination before beginning any real action. According to the Oscoda Press, a few months after we moved to Ohio, Wurtsmith began providing drinking water to base residents affected by water contamination. A September 1993 Final Environmental Impact Statement writes how the Air Force distributed drinking water to affected residences until they were connected to the Oscoda municipal water supply by the end of 1992. The base officially closed in 1993, and its remaining occupants were no longer drinking the water from its wells.

The real issue, however, is whether groundwater contamination made its way to the kitchen faucets and drinking fountains on base. Did residents and workers at Wurtsmith drink poisoned water? After reading contamination and health reports from 1983 to today, the answer is undoubtedly YES. Veterans and their family and visiting friends were drinking contaminated water from sometime before the contamination was discovered in 1977 until the well water was replaced by Oscoda’s municipal water supply. 

The next issue is whether enough contaminate was present long enough to harm the civilians, warriors, and families living and serving on base. Before 1977 the evidence is clear: TCE and other contaminates in the tap water exceeded safe levels and caused harm. After removing the Building 43 leaking 500-gallon used degreaser tank, shutting off the more severely impacted wells, and installing new purging wells, the TCE contamination reaching the kitchen faucet was considered below a calculated minimum risk level. It is important to consider that the minimum risk level did not consider children in the womb. Veterans and their family and guests, however, were continuing to drink water with untold amounts of jet fuel and TCE until the base closed. No doubt, the groundwater was transporting the hazardous contents of leaking tanks in the aquifer long before their removal in the early 1990s. 

Past reports do not state whether water testing was continuous or frequent enough from October 1977 through June 1993 to account for known and unknown chemicals transiting a dynamic and ever-changing aquifer. The water below the surface was transient, moving roughly 5 to 10 inches a day to the closest body of surface water. In some areas, the movement of the aquifer was more than 12 inches a day. To the northeast was Van Etten Lake and to the south was the Au Sable River. Eventually, all water and its contents made its way to Lake Huron. The introduction of purging wells at various depths in the aquifer partially changed this normal flow of groundwater, which transported contaminates underground in less predictable directions.  In addition, the water table below would rise and fall roughly three feet a year depending on the rainy and dry seasons. Chemicals entering the aquifer would stratify, as the less dense constituents of a chemical mixture would move up higher in the aquifer. For example, Benzene is less dense than water and would migrate and pool underground near the top of the aquifer. Of course, this means denser chemicals would descend deeper. To complicate matters further, chemicals would react with the soil and other chemicals to form different chemicals. Some of these new chemicals were hazardous and others benign. Chemicals would also cling to the sand and rocks below while some of the chemical would move with the water. Purging wells could not pull much of the chemicals clinging to the subterranean surfaces of gravel, sand, and dirt. Add to this that the depth of the wells was different, and you begin to understand that the aquifer, extending to roughly 65 feet below the surface, was a dynamic and ever changing environment, where the concentration of chemicals from tank leaks or random spills could rise and fall in concentration as they passed by the screens of the drinking wells. For these reasons and more, making absolute determinations as to the amount and length of human exposures to chemical contaminates is likely not statistically valid.

In addition, past reports do not state that testing was so comprehensive as to test for every hazardous chemical present in the water. Early USGS reports would write about testing along a base/neutral priority pollutant analytical scheme. Think of this as testing for some subset of chemicals. Therefore, Benzene led to the discovery of JP-4 in the soil when Benzene is only a fractional component of JP-4. One look at the complex chemical mixture of JP-4, and you realize that there are many more chemicals trapped and moving about the aquifer than any testing sought to reveal. In general, the focus of past testing was to detect volatile chemicals in the groundwater in order to determine the type and source of the contamination and not necessarily to isolate each chemical that could cause health problems. For example, firefighting foams (PFOS – Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and PFOA – Perfluoro octanoic acid) used to put out fires are not volatile chemicals. The military began use of this chemical in the early 1970s. Wurtsmith AFB water contamination reports in the 1980’s did not seriously consider firefighting foams when these chemicals were clearly present in the groundwater. The health impact of this class of nonvolatile chemicals is only now making headlines as the complete story of the scope of contamination and its human toll are still being written. Read Bulletin #1 for more on this major groundwater contamination that entered the former base water supply and is spreading into the local Oscoda community.

As my wife and I step back and look at the past groundwater chemical contamination at Wurtsmith, we are saddened. We understand now that more likely than not our son’s profound handicaps are a result of the Wurtsmith AFB groundwater contaminations. Our family’s story begins when our son Mitchell was born October 6, 1989, and the doctor first noticed he had a slightly smaller head than normal. At the beginning a doctor said Mitchell would not live past five. When Mitchell was six years old doctors suggested Mitchell would not live to be a teenager. After Mitchell’s thirteenth birthday, the doctors stopped guessing. Mitchell’s complete diagnosis became microcephaly, infantile cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, scoliosis associated with his condition, generalized convulsive epilepsy with intractable epilepsy (Lennox-Gastaut syndrome), and respiratory insufficiency.

Clearly the contamination story at Wurtsmith AFB is part of a larger story affecting military families across decades. Our family now realizes that the frontline of the Cold War was military installations like Wurtsmith AFB. Like all wars, there is a loss of blood and treasure. During the Cold War it was the civilian, the soldier, and their families working and living on military installations that were in harm’s way on the battlefield. History will likely record that the groundwater chemical contamination on military installations harmed our veterans like Agent Orange in Vietnam and the Burn Pits in Iraq. Unlike the chemical contamination of veterans on foreign soil, the groundwater contaminations at home unfortunately impacted the warfighter’s families and the surrounding communities. American civilians were unknowingly on a battlefield, becoming conscripts in a Cold War. Our nation has a duty to address this issue with the same veracity expected by our young men and women on the battlefield. Too often our country owns an issue of this magnitude only after the affected generations are nearly gone. Here we are, approaching thirty years since the end of the Cold War with only studies and reports to show for it. If chemical contamination of this magnitude happened on the land of an American company, our people’s pursuit for justice and restitution would be veracious. At a minimum, the Cold War chemical contamination of veterans and their families should challenge and expand our nation’s calculus when tallying the costs of freedom. From our perspective, Mitchell paid the ultimate price for the freedoms our great country enjoys today. 

“History will likely record that the groundwater chemical contamination on military installations harmed our Veterans like Agent Orange in Vietnam and the burn pits in Iraq. Unlike the chemical contamination of veterans on foreign soil, the groundwater contamination at home unfortunately impacted the warfighter’s families and the surrounding communities” (OVERWHELMED: A Civilian Casualty of Cold War Poison, 2019, p. 277)

AUTHOR: This bulletin was written by Craig Minor

  • USAF, retired. Wurtsmith Air Force Base B-52G Aircraft Commander; Wright-Patterson Air Force Base NT-39A Instructor Research Pilot and Senior Acquisition Manager, 2016
  • BS Chemistry, Averett University, Danville, Virginia, 1984
  • MBA in Finance, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio 2004
  • JD in Law, Capital University Law School, Columbus, Ohio, 2013

Co-author of “OVERWHELMED: A Civilian Casualty of Cold War Poison; Mitchell’s Memoir, As told by His Dad, Mom, Sister, & Brother, 2019.” 

Sources and End Notes

United States Geological Survey (USGS), 1983. Ground-Water Contamination at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Report 83-4002.

United States Geological Survey (USGS), 1986. Assessment of Groundwater Contamination at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Report 86-4188.

Montgomery Watson, 1993. Final Environmental Impact Statement, Disposal and Reuse of Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan. September.

US Department of Health and Human Services, 2001. Public Health Assessment Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan. April.

Air Force Real Property Agency (AFRPA), 2004. First Five-Year Review Report for Installation Restoration Program Sites at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan. September.

US Department of Health and Human Services, 2015. Evaluation of Drinking Water near Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan. September.

US Department of Health and Human Services, 2018. Re-evaluation of Past Exposures to VOC Contaminants in Drinking Water Former Wurtsmith Air force Base, Michigan. July.