OSCODA, Mich. — The wind-whipped water on Michigan’s Van Etten Lake washes up daily reminders of an environmental tragedy set into motion decades ago and still unfolding.

Foamy suds on the surface and along the shoreline are remnants of firefighting foam used at nearby Wurstmuth Air Force base, once the home to America’s fleet of B-52 bombers during the Cold War.

PHOTO: Decades after military firefighters used PFAS foam in training exercises at nearby Wurtstmith Air Force Base, suds still wash ashore along the beaches of Van Etten Lake in Oscoda, Mich.

Decades after military firefighters used PFAS foam in training exercises at nearby Wurtstmith Air Force Base, suds still wash ashore along the beaches of Van Etten Lake in Oscoda, Mich.

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“It was used three or four or five times a week in training, and they would foam down the entire runway,” said Tony Spaniola, an Oscoda resident who lives along the lake. “It was generally thought to be safe, but here we are many years later still seeing and feeling the consequences.”

The foam, developed by the military decades ago, contains per-and poly-fluroalkyl substances, or PFAS — so-called “forever chemicals” because they never break down.

PHOTO: Wurthsmith Air Force Base, which closed in 1993, is the first U.S. military installation where PFAS contamination was discovered and now a focal point in the push to clean up the pollution.

Wurthsmith Air Force Base, which closed in 1993, is the first U.S. military installation where PFAS contamination was discovered and now a focal point in the push to clean up the pollution.

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Highly effective at fighting fuel fires, the chemicals are also now linked to heightened risk of liver damage, weakened immune systems and cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Signs dot public beaches in Oscoda warning families not to eat the fish they catch and to rinse off after swimming. Hunters are advised before entering the woods of high PFAS levels in the deer.

PHOTO: Signs warn hunters in Oscoda, Mich., along the shorts of Lake Huron not to eat the deer they kill because of high levels of PFAS chemicals.

Signs warn hunters in Oscoda, Mich., along the shorts of Lake Huron not to eat the deer they kill because of high levels of PFAS chemicals.

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“Wurtsmith was the first military installation in the world at which PFAs contamination was publicly reported, and it’s the place where the Department of Defense, the largest polluter in the United States, developed its plan to address PFAS,” Spaniola said.

The Pentagon has identified more than 700 military communities grappling with the dangers of PFAS contamination in drinking and groundwater — much of it stemming from firefighting foam.

PHOTO: The beaches along Van Etten Lake in Oscoda, Michigan, are dotted with foam advisories warning of exposure to PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are harmful to human health.

The beaches along Van Etten Lake in Oscoda, Michigan, are dotted with foam advisories warning of exposure to PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are harmful to human health.

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Nationwide, PFAS has been detected in drinking and groundwater supplies of 5,000 communities across all 50 states, with more than 60 million Americans at risk, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group tracking PFAS contamination.

“If you live in a place like Oscoda, a lot of the PFAS that’s in your drinking water is coming from those military installations. If you don’t live near a base, it’s more likely that PFAS is coming from industrial releases,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at EWG.

PHOTO: Firefighting foam laden with PFAS is a leading source of contamination in drinking and groundwater systems of 5,000 communities across all 50 states, according to environmental groups and the EPA.

Firefighting foam laden with PFAS is a leading source of contamination in drinking and groundwater systems of 5,000 communities across all 50 states, according to environmental groups and the EPA.

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Last month, in a nod to the growing health risks, the EPA mandated first-ever national safety limits for six types of PFAS in drinking water.

Milestone in campaign against PFAS contamination

Community advocates and members of Congress have pressured the Pentagon for decades to do more to contain the PFAS pollution around military installations.

In Oscoda, officials have spent more than 13 years studying the contamination but still do not have a comprehensive clean up plan.

PHOTO: Oscoda, Mich., home to Wurtsmith Air Force Base, is considered ground zero in the U.S. military’s legacy of PFAS contamination.

Oscoda, Mich., home to Wurtsmith Air Force Base, is considered ground zero in the U.S. military’s legacy of PFAS contamination.

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As recently as last year, the Pentagon defended PFAS-laden firefighting foam — known as aqueous film forming foam — as critical to the nation’s defenses.

But in late 2019, amid mounting public and political pressure, Congress ordered the chemical fire retardant phased out at air bases by the end of 2024.

“It means of course people are going to be safer. We’re going to be able to continue to put out jet fuel fires without contaminating service members and the neighbors of defense installations,” Faber said, praising the development.

PHOTO: Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at Environmental Working Group, has spent years lobbying Congress and the White House to more aggressively address PFAS contamination.

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at Environmental Working Group, has spent years lobbying Congress and the White House to more aggressively address PFAS contamination.

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At Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida’s panhandle, another PFAS contamination site, military firefighters are now leading a transition to new foam developed without “forever chemicals” known as F3.

ABC News received an exclusive look at how the new foam works and how it will replace PFAS foam at military airfields around the globe.

PHOTO: Firefighters at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Fla., practice putting out a fuel fire using new fluorine-free foam, or F3, which does not contain PFAS chemicals.

Firefighters at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Fla., practice putting out a fuel fire using new fluorine-free foam, or F3, which does not contain PFAS chemicals.

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PHOTO: Fluorine-free foam used in a demonstration at Tyndall Air Force Base does not contain PFAS chemicals. It will be deployed at military airfields worldwide in the next few years.

Fluorine-free foam used in a demonstration at Tyndall Air Force Base does not contain PFAS chemicals. It will be deployed at military airfields worldwide in the next few years.

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“It took us three years. Typically this takes something like 15 to 30 years or so” to develop, said Dr. Kim Spangler, a chemist who heads the Pentagon’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program. “This represents really a tremendous achievement.”

Spangler insists “rigorous testing” by military and private sector groups confirms that the new foam is safe for the environment and human health.

“We feel very confident that these foams perform as we need them to and that they truly and transparently meet the military specification,” she said.

PHOTO: Dr. Kim Spangler, director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, led the effort to develop new PFAS-free firefighting foam.

Dr. Kim Spangler, director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, led the effort to develop new PFAS-free firefighting foam.

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Spaniola, who has spent years lobbying Congress and the Pentagon to do more to clean up PFAS, calls rollout of the new firefighting foam a big step.

“It’s important to keep in mind that when the military stops using it, that has a ripple effect throughout the rest of commerce,” he said.

Pentagon urges interim PFAS remedies

A Defense Department strategy and estimated price tag for cleaning up PFAS contamination around military installations nationwide isn’t expected for at least several more years.

“We recognize the frustration. We are equipping the communities with technical assistance,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense Brendan Owens, who oversees environmental clean up efforts. “It is a significant challenge and one that we’re very committed to making sure that we are focused on going forward.”

PHOTO: Brendan Owens, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and the Environment, oversees the Pentagon’s effort to contain the damage from PFAS contamination around more than 700 installations.

Brendan Owens, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and the Environment, oversees the Pentagon’s effort to contain the damage from PFAS contamination around more than 700 installations.

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In a memo to military branches late last year, Owen ordered immediate, interim actions to stop the spread of PFAS contamination around bases while the plan is finalized. Community advocates have pointed to the directive as a sea change in the Pentagon’s approach.

“There has been some really good momentum but we’re at a crossroads,” Spaniola said.

PHOTO: Beneath the airfield at the old Wurthsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich., plumes of PFAS chemicals from military firefighting foam contaminate groundwater supplies.

Beneath the airfield at the old Wurthsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich., plumes of PFAS chemicals from military firefighting foam contaminate groundwater supplies.

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In Oscoda, the Air Force says it will install five new groundwater treatment systems to block the underground flow of chemicals into Van Etten Lake while long-term solutions are developed.

The goal is to “stop the bleeding, to the extent that we can,” said Owens. “We have regular check-ins with the military departments to make sure that we are getting after that.”

PHOTO: Tony Spaniola, a resident of Oscoda, Mich., and co-founder of the Need Our Water community action group, has led a public campaign to get the Pentagon to more aggressively address PFAS contamination around military sites.

Tony Spaniola, a resident of Oscoda, Mich., and co-founder of the Need Our Water community action group, has led a public campaign to get the Pentagon to more aggressively address PFAS contamination around military sites.

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Spaniola applauds the effort but says so much more remains to be done.

“We never get our hopes too high here,” he said, “because we’ve been promised so much for so long, only to have been let down.”



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