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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Town in northern Wisconsin grappling with highest PFAS contamination levels in state

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is currently delivering water to 41 Town of Stella residences.
Susan Bence
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is currently delivering water to 41 Town of Stella residences.

Residents of the Town of Stella, northeast of Rhinelander, continue to look for answers in their fight against PFAS contamination impacting private wells.

Ninety Stella residents showed up for a public meeting Tuesday evening. Before the gathering, Jim Zellmer, administrator of the DNR’s environmental management division, briefed the media on the issue.

“PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals used for decades in numerous products, including nonstick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and certain types of firefighting foam,” Zellmer says.

Stella is one of a growing number of communities living with PFAS and seeking solutions.

In 2020 the small Town of Campbell in far western Wisconsin found out PFAS has contaminated its private wells. The town isn't waiting for federal and state leaders to deal with the forever chemical. Campbell is working to secure a sustainable, safe water source for its residents.

Initially a few residents there participated in a statewide voluntary sampling of private wells. The DNR then expanded the testing range to a 2.5 mile radius in Stella. PFAS contamination has been found in wells that serve households and two summer camps.

“The DNR is currently providing temporary in-home alternative water to 41 full-time residences in this area,” Zellmer says.

But the DNR does not yet know the full extent of contamination in the town, according to the agency’s drinking water and groundwater director Steve Elmore. He offered a bit of context to Stella’s situation Tuesday by sharing information on the magnitude of PFAS contamination in the town.

“It’s some of the highest levels in the country, and certainly the highest we’ve seen in groundwater and drinking water in Wisconsin,” Elmore says.

Wisconsin DNR

Nearly eight months ago, Stella’s town chairman David Brunette wrote to Gov. Evers as well as state and U.S. lawmakers “respectfully calling on our elected public officials to assist in remedying this issue."

Solutions could range from bottled or bulk water to hooking up to a municipal water system outside Stella.Meanwhile, one looming question is the source of the town ’s PFAS contamination.

Jim Zellmer says that’s still being investigated. Zellmer also says the DNR is considering expanding well sampling in the Stella area. He stressed the DNR and the Department of Health Services will continue to work with the Town of Stella.

“At the request of the town, state staff and licensed professionals will also be available to answer questions about well replacement and treatment resources,” Zellmer says.

Zellmer says resources are available through a program launched in 2022.

“The American Rescue Plan Act well compensation and well abandonment grant programs provide financial assistance to well owners to address contamination by awarding grants for the replacement, reconstruction, treatment or abandonment of their wells,” Zellmer says. “Many previously ineligible individuals may now be eligible to apply.”

Zellmer says the DNR can accept applications until funding runs out.

So far, the agency has allocated three million of the ten million dollars available to Wisconsin residents through American Rescue Plan Act funding.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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