PFAS

‘Forever chemicals’ affect waterside economies | WCMU Public Radio

Oscoda is known to gather lots of tourists in the summer, thanks to the Au Sable River that runs through it and its sandy beaches along Lake Huron.

Eight years ago, Oscoda residents were informed that “forever chemicals” called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, had made their way into groundwater and some residents’ private wells. These chemicals are known to be hydrophobic, meaning they fail to mix with water, and can be found in many products such carpets, raincoats, and cookware.

Research is still being done to discover whether the chemicals pose any long-term risks to humans.

The history of PFAS usage in the town dates back to the 1970s when it was used on the now-closed Wurtsmith Air Force Base in town and in firefighter training. The chemicals were used in firefighting foam, as they are meant to be hydrophobic.

Improper use of the firefighting foam causes the chemicals to end up in various water sources, including the Au Sable River. Evidence of that misuse can be found in bodies of water where unnatural white foam floats on the surface.

As water from Van Etten Lake laps up on the sandy shoreline, so does the PFAS foam. Clumping together after being pushed around by the waves, the foam will occasionally gather around objects or blow onshore if the wind is strong enough.

Courtney Boyd

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WCMU / Alpena News

As water from Van Etten Lake laps up on the sandy shoreline, so does the PFAS foam. Clumping together after being pushed around by the waves, the foam will occasionally gather around objects or blow onshore if the wind is strong enough.

While Oscoda residents are aware of the issue, tourists and those who have recently moved to the town are not.

The PFAS discovery’s impact on tourism is difficult to measure, but both data from the time and sources from the region say it did affect the economy when the contamination was initially announced in 2016.

The Au Sable River runs through the Huron-Manistee National Forest from Oscoda to Grayling. The forest receives tourists year-round, and public information officer Travis Owens said the entire forest received over one million visitors in 2017.

Owens said these numbers come from the National Visitor Use Monitoring Survey, a survey the U.S. Forest Service conducts every five years.

The most recent data comparisons come from 2012 and 2017, which shows a regional decline in visitors to the forest by 33%, and site visits decreased by roughly 16%.

Owens said a report for 2022 is still in the works, and that national forest visitations are actually trending upwards. Once released, the new report could show whether the visitor decline was temporary or part of a larger trend along the Au Sable River.

When it comes to the town of Oscoda itself, tourism has seen its ups and downs. William Palmer is the supervisor for Oscoda Township, and he said the economy seems back to “normal” now.

“We’re back to seeing pretty good crowds here in the summertime, and that’s good for our economy,” he said.

Palmer said it took a few years after the PFAS announcement for the town to recover. During the height of the issue, he said realtors and businesses near the lake were heavily affected when the contamination happened.

“It did affect our economy and home prices here for a couple of years,” he said.

Palmer said tourist destinations that were usually booked all summer were seeing more open rooms, and lakeside properties that normally would have sold well were staying available for months.

Palmer’s statement reflects real estate data from the 2010s to now. According to Redfin, property values in Iosco County, where Oscoda resides, are currently on the rise, but it wasn’t always this way.

Through the years 2016 to 2019, property values would rise and fall drastically, which correlates with when Oscoda announced the contamination. Between July and August of 2016, the county saw its first drop in values.

The lowest property values dropped to was $57,000 in early 2018. Prices would not see a drop like this again until March 2020.

As of May 2024, the average market value of homes in Oscoda is $148,000, which is still below Michigan’s average home price.

Kim Loveland is the owner of Lighthouse Realty Oscoda North. She said currently, business is doing well. Her best-selling properties are by bodies of water.

“Lake Huron is my favorite body of water, and the Au Sable is my second,” she said. “That’s the way most people feel (here) … People always want waterfronts.”

Loveland said she had potential buyers during 2016 and 2017 worry about the PFAS contamination. While business is fine now, she believes contamination could affect the real estate business in the future, especially if it gets into city water.

At present, Palmer said the economy in Oscoda has bounced back. He said this is likely due to education around PFAS, and that tourists have realized PFAS is in “everything” today.

“It’s in fast food wrappers, it’s in coatings on furniture and clothing and utensils,” he said. “Once people learn more about the extent that we are exposed to it, it’s let things sort of come back to life.”

Palmer said currently, the township is seeing its fair share of tourists, and properties by Van Etten Lake are getting sold quickly. Van Etten Lake is located just across from the air base that started the PFAS contamination, and PFAS foam can still be spotted collecting on its shores today.

While PFAS is known to be a problem in Oscoda, hot spots have also popped up in other towns around the region. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy has an interactive map available online at michigan.gov/egle/maps-data.

Alpena County currently has two PFAS contamination sites — the Alpena Hide and Leather Co. and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.

Christiaan Bon is the site leader for the CRTC’s contamination. He said the state environmental agency conducted sampling of surface and spring water in the Thunder Bay River and found there are “no substantial levels” entering the river. He said the same can be said for fish and for residential water.

Bon said that, onsite, the CRTC is getting ready for its second round of remedial investigation.