PFAS Chemicals Pose A Continued Threat To Water In Northeast Wisconsin
Updated 10:51 a.m. CDT
This week marks the 51st anniversary of Earth Day.
To bear witness to some of the environmental challenges and opportunities that Wisconsin faces, WUWM’s environmental reporter Susan Bence has put together an Earth Week series highlighting stories across the state — starting with PFAS.
PFAS are chemicals found in countless products from food packaging to firefighting foam. They’re often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment but can bioaccumulate in living things, including people.
Christy Remucal is an associate professor at UW-Madison. She also is the director of the Water Science and Engineering Laboratory and leads the Aquatic Chemsitry group at the university.
In 2019, she and her post-doctorate researcher Sarah Balgooyen began putting together a project to study PFAS in Wisconsin. In 2020, they sampled 40 rivers that feed into Green Bay.
Remucal says one tricky aspect of PFAS is that they dissolve in water easily, meaning they can spread farther while still being harmful.
"It just makes things complicated because if we look at like a remediation perspective, you have to think about the water and the sediment, you have to think about everything, and they can move away from the source where they're being introduced into the environment so they can spread out and move around everywhere," she explains.
Marinette, on the shore of Green Bay, and the neighboring Town of Peshtigo have been particularly hard hit by PFAS polluting drinking water.
Jeff Lamont grew up a quarter of a mile from the bay, near what’s now UW-Green Bay’s Marinette campus.
"As a kid, this was all park and open woods. We’d spear northern pike. This is one of the creeks that had over 3,000 parts per trillion of PFAS going out directly into the bay,” he explains.
For decades a PFAS-infused firefighting foam manufacturer has operated nearby. In the early years, there was no Clean Air or Water Acts watching out for the environment.
The company’s most recent owner Johnson Controls-Tyco hosted a popular training program. As heat and flames rose from the hands-on exercise, people weren’t thinking about potential air quality impacts or soil, surface and groundwater contamination.
By 2017, the Wisconsin DNR announced PFAS contamination in the Marinette/Peshtigo area as the highest known in the state.
That’s when Lamont learned that his and his neighbors’ private wells were situated in the center of the contamination plume.
“Shortly after that we formed a small group, concerned friends and neighbors, which later morphed into SOH2O, Save Our Water,” he says.
Lamont says their concerns go far beyond the water they drink, to the air they breathed.
“Because that fire training center, when they would have those burns, black smoke and soot and particulates would rain down on the high school and the athletic fields over there, all the way east to the bay here. We think that’s maybe one of the biggest exposure pathways,” he says.
PFAS also made their way into the municipal wastewater treatment system.
“They were flushing this down the sewer, it went into the biosolids. Those biosolids for 20 years got spread on over 3,500 acres of farmland in Marinette county here,” Lamont says.
As for PFAS regulations, none existed. So Lamont’s and other groups lobbied federal and state lawmakers and pushed for state laws and health standards.
The Department of Health Services issued groundwater standards recommendations for two PFAS in 2019 and 16 more in 2020. In the meantime, Gov. Evers directed the DNR to form a PFAS action council.
In 2020, only one bill — restricting the use and testing of PFAS-containing firefighting foam — made it through the legislature. But late in the year, a Republican-dominated rules committee voted six to four to strike out key provisions.
“Wow! That was discouraging!” says Kayla Furton, a resident of Peshtigo. “The fact that a few representatives could strip the very protections that would have protected our community, opening up future contamination for other communities to deal!”
Furton was unexpectedly pulled into the eye of the PFAS storm when in 2017 her family purchased the house she grew up in. She kept her eye on reports of private wells being tested.
“We watched that plume expand closer and closer and when it reached about five houses north, we called and requested testing. They said, ‘No, no, no, the plume stopped’ as if the groundwater knows to stop spreading,” she saus.
Furton says soon after, Johnson Controls-Tyco expanded testing, stopping one house beyond hers. “So that house there is the end of where they accept responsibility, which is unconscionable that they take an arbitrary property line,” she says.
Johnson Controls Chief Sustainability Officer Katie McGinty insists that the company is taking appropriate responsibility.
“There is an area around our plant in Marinette where PFAS from our operation is certainly a very significant contributor to the PFAS challenge in the area and we take 100% responsibility for that,” she says.
McGinty says taking responsibility will include providing a permanent clean water solution. Hooking up impacted homes to Marinette municipal water seems to be the most likely fix. Since their contaminated well falls within Johnson Control’s accepted zone, the Furton family received a water filtration system.
“But really, all families deserve that and all families deserve clean water,” she say
With so many unknowns and so much to be done, Furton decided to step up. She ran and was elected to the Town of Peshtigo’s board of supervisors in 2020.
“I really believe the people of the Town of Peshtigo deserve representation and leadership that will really go to bat for them,” she says.
Kayla Furton, Jeff Lamont and others who are speaking out for their shoreline community hold out hope that state and federal leaders will do the same.
The Wisconsin PFAS Action Council, put together by Gov. Evers, issued a report in December 2020 with action steps to address contamination.
Professor Remucal is a member of the council and says action on PFAS is important because researchers like her team still don't know the full effects of long-term exposure to contamination.
"There's a lot we don't know about, and so I think one thing that's challenging is understanding this mixture effect, knowing that there's a mixture of a lot of different chemicals," she says. "There are a lot of long-term exposure type questions out there."
Gov. Evers has folded $26 million into his proposed budget to expand testing and clean up, and to increase DNR staffing.
In the meantime, business advocates, such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, don’t want companies to suffer as regulators attempt to come up with environmental solutions.
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