Nestled near the headwaters of the Au Sable River in Northern Lower Michigan, in lands forcibly taken from the Odawa and Ojibwa, the Michigan Army National Guard (MIANG) currently operates the largest National Guard training site in the country, Camp Grayling. At 230 square miles, it could fit Detroit (139 sq. miles), Lansing (37 sq. miles), and Grand Rapids (45 sq. miles) safely within its footprint. In addition to the Army and National Guard, the area is used by police departments, prisons, private military contractors, and foreign military units.
In January of 2022, the National Guard proposed expanding its Land Use Agreement with the state by a staggering 250 square miles, bringing its size to 490 square miles, or about twice the size of Chicago. This is happening at the same time the Air National Guard is seeking separately to expand operations over Northern Michigan and Lake Huron, likely in concert with the proposed expansion of Camp Grayling.
MIANG claims that the additional area is required to conduct training in space, cyber, and electronic warfare. According to Col. Scott Meyers, the camp’s commander, these distances are essential to simulate what troops will encounter on the battlefield and to keep activities at the base separated. Officials have repeatedly claimed the activities will be “low impact,” and that there will only be intermittent closures to the public.
But this ignores the already well-documented failure of the National Guard to live up to its own purported standards.
PFAS contamination at Camp Grayling was first discovered by the military in 2016, though the chemical had been in use for decades on the base as a fire and dust suppressant. PFAS, sometimes described as a “forever chemical” due to the extremely long time it takes for the chemical to break down in the environment, is linked to various health issues such as cancers, high cholesterol, and developmental problems in children. It is particularly worrisome because it can dissolve in water, making it very difficult to remove once an area has been contaminated.
In 2019, the wells of 1,100 local residents were tested, and 300 came back positive for PFAS. The military only paid for 18 of these homes to have their water rerouted to the municipal supply, while the remaining 282 homes receive tap water filters occasionally from the health department.
Local residents have reported feeling abandoned, with some reporting visible foam and chemical build up on bodies of water near their homes. There is real fear among locals that this may echo the Air Force’s refusal to take responsibility for PFAS contamination caused by their activities around Wurtsmith Air Base in Oscoda, just 70 miles east.
Even bureaucrats within the state are speaking out. District Supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s (EGLE) Remediation and Redevelopment Division in Gaylord, in a December 22 letter to the acting PFAS program manager for the Army National Guard’s Cleanup and Restoration Branch, wrote that DNR officials should reject the expansion of Camp Grayling due to the Guard’s “inability to take timely action to investigate, mitigate, and remediate significant areas of contamination at Camp Grayling.” When asked about this, Col. Meyers called the PFAS issues and the Land Use Agreement “two completely separate issues.” He claims the Guard no longer uses “any of those chemicals” and that PFAS wouldn’t be used on the base moving forward. Although it was reported as recently as July that EGLE sent a violation notice to the Guard for allegedly discharging stormwater contaminated with PFOS (a particular type of PFAS chemical) into a lake.
Currently, the U.S. military is one of the most egregious polluters ever to have existed on the planet. Since 2001, the military has produced over 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses and accounts for over 80 percent of the federal government’s fuel consumption. If we set aside the issue of PFAS/PFOS entirely, you are still left with the pollution from the operation and maintenance of all of the equipment and machinery, including planes and helicopters, the destruction and clearing of natural areas, and the disruption of both animal and resident populations with noise from flyovers, gunfire, and artillery.
Not to mention that although the Guard has agreed to keep a 1,500-foot buffer from bodies of water like lakes and rivers, this crucially does not include delicate wetlands, on which much of Camp Grayling already sits. This means that the local water system is still under very severe threat from spillage of other chemicals, metals, or jet fuel.
Expansion of Surveillance and Control
Camp Grayling, in addition to being a military training center, is a hub for police departments, foreign militaries, and private contractors. In 2020, the National All-Domain War-Fighting Center (NADWC) was established by the Michigan National Guard. It encompasses Camp Grayling, the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, and the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base. The goal of the NADWC is essentially to make National Guard installations attractive places for private contractors or the Department of Defense to test new technologies.
In an article in DBusiness magazine, Col. Meyers was quoted as saying “Ever since we unveiled NADWC, my phone has been ringing off the hook with private industry trying to get into this space. And the advantage is that we have a lot of availability and a lot of land for folks to come out here and play.”
The proposed expansion would allow for increased use and testing of new technologies, particularly those dubbed as Electronic Warfare (EW). These include surveillance tools developed by private companies like Palantir, which are also sold as “off the shelf” solutions for law enforcement, DHS, or corporate customers. It has been reported that access to NADWC facilities and expertise costs as little as $147 per day, making this a very cost effective choice for those within the military industrial complex.
Camp Grayling also houses the Northern Michigan Law Enforcement Training Group, which touts 75 law enforcement agencies from the region amongst its members. They have a permanent training center on the grounds of Camp Grayling complete with a 2.25 km square mock town, where police get trained on using tactical firearms and urban assault techniques.
These technologies have become commonplace domestically for dealing with protests and general unrest. One of the authors of the zine “The Base Among The Jack Pine” aptly described the situation:
During the 2020 George Floyd Uprising, state law enforcement, various federal agencies, and the National Guard frequently used EW tactics to control crowds, surveil protestors, and assist in counterinsurgency operations. The LRAD that many state forces used frequently in an attempt to exact compliance, through pain, from rowdy crowds are a Direct Energy Weapon. Stingrays and dirtboxes that snooped on people’s electronic data, ripping identifying and sometimes incriminating information, are an EMS surveillance tactic. EW exercises conducted at Camp Grayling will undoubtedly play a role in advances in AI and machine learning capabilities that will make these already sinister tactics faster, more accurate, and more effective.
The military has repeatedly done nothing but obfuscate its many failures, and avoid responsibility, and has made only the most minor efforts at remediation when compelled to do so. They have shown contempt for local residents, and have given no reason to believe that things may be different in the future.
An expansion of Camp Grayling is an expansion of the apparatus that cages, surveils, and punishes us. It exemplifies the ever creeping nature of the surveillance state and its various appendages. Quietly, with the patina of legitimacy afforded by “public comment periods” and all of the other bureaucratic licensing, credentialing, and “transparency,” we are all encouraged to welcome the testing and development of equipment that will inevitably find its ways onto our streets and into our neighborhoods, developed by people who are at best apathetic to the destruction of the natural world around us. But if you’re one of the lucky ones, you might get a free water filter for all the trouble.
We need your help to propel Truthout into the new year
As we look toward the new year, we’re well aware of the obstacles that lie in the path to justice. But here at Truthout, we are encouraged and emboldened by the courage of people worldwide working to move us all forward — people like you.
If you haven’t yet made your end-of-year donation to support our work, this is the perfect moment to do so: Our year-end fundraising drive is happening now, and we must raise $150,000 by the end of December.
Will you stand up for truly independent, honest journalism by making a contribution in the amount that’s right for you? It only takes a few seconds to donate by card, Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, or Venmo — we even accept donations of cryptocurrency and stock! Just click the red button below.