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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: Michigan is first state to win new PFAS containment investment from U.S. Department of Defense

Tony Spaniola
Tony Spaniola
Need Our Water
Tony Spaniola


Anthony ‘Tony’ Spaniola is a Detroit area attorney who became a leading national PFAS advocate after learning that his family’s lake home in Oscoda is impacted by PFAS contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base – the first reported PFAS site in Michigan and the first reported U.S. military PFAS site in the world.

With his neighbors in Oscoda, Spaniola co-founded Need Our Water (NOW) in 2017 and has helped it become one of the nation’s preeminent PFAS community action groups. Building on that experience, he co-founded and co-chairs the recently formed Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, and he serves on the Leadership Team of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, comprised of community-based PFAS groups throughout the country.

Spaniola was among the first to bring the PFAS crisis to the attention of candidates and elected officials in Michigan. He was involved in drafting the first PFAS legislation introduced in the Michigan Legislature, and he is among those credited by Congressman Dan Kildee in suggesting the concept that led to the creation of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force. He served as a PFAS policy advisor to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in her 2018 election campaign and he continues to work closely with elected officials in Michigan and nationally on PFAS policy matters.

Spaniola has delivered PFAS presentations at colleges and universities across the country and is frequently quoted in state and national media coverage of PFAS issues. In 2019, he was the only non-scientist to address the National Academy of Sciences at its inaugural PFAS Workshop in Washington, D.C. He has appeared in three PFAS film documentaries and served as a consultant to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Sara Ganim on her critically-acclaimed film, “No Defense: The U.S. Military’s War On Water.”


Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'


Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Michigan PFAS Action Response Team: Former Wurtsmith Air Force Base

Great Lakes PFAS Action Network


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to look at a Department of Defense decision that has direct implications for environmental health in Michigan and may very well serve as a model throughout the nation. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this month's edition of First Friday Focus on the Environment. My co-host is the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, Lisa Wozniak. And, Lisa, today, we actually get to discuss good news when it comes to PFAS.

Lisa Wozniak: Yes we do, Dave. And what a struggle it's been to get here. The DOD announced that it is planning to install more groundwater treatment systems at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. The goal is to control contamination from those awful forever chemicals and prevent PFAs from spreading into surrounding water bodies. And don't forget. Wurtsmith sits along the shores of Lake Huron. So, this struggle has been long, and it's been hard, and the battle is far from over. But we wouldn't have gotten to this point at all without the efforts of our guest and his colleagues. We have with us today Tony Spaniola, who is the co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. And I'd like to welcome you back to the show.

David Fair: Thank you for being here, Tony.

Tony Spaniola: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

David Fair: For those who may not be familiar, toxic PFAS contamination is an issue that's impacting drinking water for people across Michigan. The first place in Michigan where toxic PFAS contamination was identified was at Wurtsmith. So, Tony, tell us a little bit about the history of PFAS contamination in Oscoda and the efforts ever since to address it.

Tony Spaniola: Sure, David. It's been, since March of 2010, when PFAs was first discovered at Wurtsmith by the then-Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. It was the first site in Michigan, as you said, and also the first U.S. military PFAS site in the world. There have since been approximately 1500 sites around the world, including 700 in the U.S., that have been discovered. And over the course of that 14 years, it's been mostly inaction, delays and a lot of frustration in the community. In the course of those 14 years, there have been five separate public health warnings issued in Oscoda--the only place, I think, in the country that has that--and it's been a long, hard fight. Yeah. And we've been working with our congressional delegation and others to try to turn that around. So, that's kind of getting from there to here, and there've been some exciting things that have happened here in just the past few weeks.

Lisa Wozniak: Yeah. So, let's go there that the D.O.D. is taking some new steps. And on January 18th, the Air Force officials gave a presentation to the Oscoda Restoration Advisory Board and the general public in a virtual meeting. So, tell us what the D.O.D. is going to do to prevent the further spread of the PFAS contamination?

Tony Spaniola: Yeah. So, what the Department of Defense announced on the 18th is that it's going to install two, they're called interim remedies or early actions to stop the flow of PFAS into the Au Sable River and into Clark's Marsh, which is right next to the Au Sable River. And the Au Sable is the first place in the country to have a "do not eat the fish" advisory from PFAS contamination. We have fish with astronomical levels of PFAS in them. And these areas that the Air Force and D.O.D. are going to attack through a groundwater pump and treat system and a few other things is one of the most highly contaminated hotspots in Oscoda and, again, directly impacts this beautiful river and also a beach that sits right next to these three giant pipes that that discharge PFAS right into the Au Sable. It's something we've been asking for for a long, long, long time. It should have happened way sooner, but it's a step in the right direction.

David Fair: This is WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. And we're talking with Tony Spaniola. He is co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. Our partner on First Fridays is Lisa Wozniak, the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

Lisa Wozniak: So, to truly understand why last month's announcement was as significant as you're saying it is for Oscoda and for the entire country, we need to understand the momentum that has been building over this past year and perhaps before that. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened in Oscoda throughout 2023 that has led us to this important announcement and victory?

Tony Spaniola: Yeah. It's been really an amazing year or a year-plus. What we've done, we have a team of volunteers in Oscoda that is really second to none in terms of expertise. We have technical experts who used to work with the DEQ. We've got lawyers who have volunteered to join us. And what we did is we went to the to the Biden administration and with to our members of Congress and essentially said, "Look. Oscoda has been the place where nothing has happened for so long because D.O.D. didn't want to set a precedent of having to do it everywhere else." And we said, "Let's turn that on its head, and let's make Wurtsmith a place where things happen and it can become a model for good things." So, our group put together a set of recommended interim remedies, a total of four of them, and we took them to the Biden administration to the Department of Defense and to our members of Congress and said, "We need to take action on these particular remedies." There's two additional ones on Van Etten Lake that were announced last August. And, we essentially said to them, "Look. Your people keep saying it's going to take us a long, long, long time to clean things up. And they're using that as an excuse to do nothing." What we're saying is the law requires whenever there are exposure pathways that are out there that those need to be addressed right away. And that should be the model for attacking PFAS at DoD sites across the country. And I had an amazing meeting last March with top ranking officials at the Pentagon and said, "This is a strategy you ought to pursue." In July of last year, the Department of Defense issued a guidance memorandum to all the service branches, saying follow this model. It was really an amazing thing to see happen. And because we had these four proposed interim remedies already teed up through our community group with the help of Senator Peters, Congresswoman Dingell, Congressman Bergman, and some others, we were able to convince them to make Wurtsmith the first place where all of this would happen. And the Undersecretary of Defense, William LaPlante, announced the first two interim remedies last August, as I said, and then these next two that came down here a couple of weeks ago. It's really been a major victory for the community because this is something the community wants. You know, it has origins in the community, and it's something everybody supports. So, we couldn't have done it without a big team effort. But it's, again, a really big step forward.

David Fair: And not to throw water on the burning successes, but you used the term "interim remedies" a few different times. I like remedy interim. What comes next in Oscoda? How does the community get to a point of full resolution on the issue?

Tony Spaniola: Well, and that's the bad news piece. It's going to take time. The PFAS circular process is still unwinding in Oscoda. It's gone on far too long. We are probably anywhere from 2 to 4 years from having a final plan. That's what they call the final remedy. And then, it's going to take some time after that to get it implemented. And we're going to probably continue to push for additional interim measures. The pitch that I made to D.O.D. last year was "Look. Stop the bleeding. Put a tourniquet around this PFAS that's in the groundwater and that's leaching into Van Etten Lake, that's leaching into the river and ends up in Lake Huron every day. Put a tourniquet around that and then take your time and dealing with the stuff that's in the middle, but cut off the exposure pathways." So, we're going to be asking--I'm almost positive--for more of these interim remedies to take place. And that's going to continue to be the focus of our work. But, yeah, unfortunately, it takes a long time. It shouldn't take this long. It's taking this long because the Department of Defense essentially is operating unsupervised in what they're doing, which is why we needed to engage our members of Congress to bring some accountability to the table.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Tony Spaniola on WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Tony, the National PFAS Conference is coming to Ann Arbor in June of this year, which is a fantastic opportunity for PFAS experts and impacted citizens and community leaders, such as yourself, to further discuss toxic PFAS contamination. What do you expect to come out of this conference?

Tony Spaniola: Well, I think there have been three of them in prior years in other cities. And this is going to bring PFAS into the focus here in Michigan. And it will bring people from all over the country and all over the world to Ann Arbor--people who are impacted, just like us in Oscoda and the folks over in Grand Rapids and, of course, in Ann Arbor itself. And I think it really is an incredible opportunity for people to see what's happened here in Michigan and for us to learn from them what they've done in other places and also to engage in dialog with the members of the scientific community who are on the frontlines of the research. So, it's a really exciting opportunity for us here in Michigan.

Lisa Wozniak: Well, Tony, thank you so much for making time today. And thank you for your incredible work. And congratulations on helping to make progress possible.

Tony Spaniola: Thank you very much.

David Fair: That is Tony Spaniola. And thank you, Tony. Tony is an Oscoda resident and co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. Lisa Wozniak: she's the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and my co-host and partner for First Friday Focus on the Environment. What do you say we do it again March 1st?

Lisa Wozniak: I look forward to doing just that, David.

David Fair: For more information on today's First Friday Focus on the Environment topic and conversation, visit our website at wemu.org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
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