A group of manmade chemicals called PFAS, which are found in countless products from food packaging to firefighting foam, is in the news as cases of contamination multiply around the country.
The U.S. House passed a bill this week that would take preliminary steps to regulate the chemicals
In Madison this week, the Wisconsin PFAS Action Council, created to come up with PFAS-coping strategies, held its second meeting.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently issued a fish consumption advisory for Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona in Dane County after samples revealed elevated levels of PFAS in fish.
The city of Marinette, 150 miles north of Milwaukee, is also is looking for solutions to PFAS contamination caused by firefighting foam. Multiple private wells have been impacted.
A room at a community recreation center was packed to overflowing Wednesday.
Christine Haag, remediation and redevelopment program director with the Wisconsin DNR, knows many people by name. It's the sixth public meeting the agency has held in Marinette since last July.
“Unfortunately this isn’t our only PFAS site in Wisconsin. Our program alone has 31 of these. This is the worst,” says Haag.
She reminds people what the DNR can and cannot do to help clean up the PFAS mess Marinette is facing.
"When someone reports contamination to us like Johnson Controls has, the way the law is written, they are responsible. It’s their job to report to us, conduct a site investigation — so sample soil, sample groundwater, did this transport through air? Conduct actions to clean up the contamination and stop it from impacting people and the environment," Haag says. "It’s the DNR’s role to make sure they’re in compliance with the law."
Johnson Controls' operations in Marinette include firefighting foam production and training. In 2013, the company discovered PFAS contamination in soil and wells within its 380-acre campus. Four years later, Johnson Controls reported that it believed contamination had spread outside its property.
The company says it has tested — and continues to monitor — its property along with nearby private wells and groundwater. The company calls it its "study area."
Father and grandfather Jeff Budish shares specific concerns about his family:
“My daughter is breastfeeding my grandson. Is it true that the breast milk is enhanced with the PFAS through the breast milk,” he asks.
Dave Hegg has lived near the firefighting facility for nearly three decades. He says many of his neighbors have been sick. He suspects PFAS exposure is to blame.
"There are at least one dozen people that have or had cancer. But 12 people on a three block stretch seems like an awful lot of people with cancer. They’re not all the same, but one form or another," Hegg says. "I myself have had six different cancers since 2000."
The DNR’s Christine Haag says her agency is pressing Johnson Controls to broaden its testing — to fold in additional private wells.
"In the last week and a half, 14 homeowners have reported to us that they have sampled their own drinking water wells and provided that information to us. Based on that data, we are asking Johnson Controls to expand that groundwater study area and sample those wells," Haag says.
John Perkins, Johnson Controls' vice president of environment, health and safety, says he would be happy to discuss the DNR’s data and any information it has gathered.
Perkins says he’s confident his company is already testing the wells that fall within the groundwater flow that could be impacted by the firefighting facility.
"PFAS comes from various different sources, not just from firefighting foam," Perkins says. "We are standing behind our position that we will certainly take care of the issue affecting the community coming from the fire training facilities, but for other sources that should be a chief focus of the DNR."
Perkins says plans are underway to install a water line to connect the 160 well owners to municipal water. “That is what we principally have been working toward with the WDNR and local stakeholders. We intend to install that line by the end of 2020."
James Kessel is one of the people outside Johnson Controls' study area who tested his well for PFAS.
Kessel admits he hadn’t paid much attention to the contamination rumblings. But not long ago, after he read a brochure about PFAS, Kessel decided to have his well tested. It revealed high levels of PFAS.
The Wisconsin DNR announced last week that it was providing emergency drinking water to Kessel.
"They took care of everything," Kessel says.
He was diagnosed and was treated for thyroid cancer in 2018.
Kessel was among the crowd of Marinette area residents at Wednesday’s public meeting. It was his first, and he was a bit overwhelmed.
"I’m kind of blown away. There’s a lot of people affected and there’s a lot of health issues that we hope aren’t involved with it," Kessel says. "But it looks like it could be."
The state’s division of Health and Human Services was represented at Wednesday’s public hearing. It says a "probable association" has been found between exposure to PFOA – one of the PFAS chemicals – and thyroid disease.
The Wisconsin DNR and Johnson Controls are coming together next week for what the company calls a “summit meeting” to share updates and concerns.
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