Jobs, the economy, social justice, the coronavirus: those are a few of the major issues motivating people to go to the polls on Tuesday. But for some voters, including in northeastern Wisconsin, water quality is among the top concerns.
Marinette County residents are dealing with surface, ground and well water contaminated by PFAS, a manmade chemical that has many uses, including as an ingredient of firefighting foam.
PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They are considered “lifetime” chemicals that get into the environment and don’t break down. PFAS may cause harm when they accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals, potentially impacting entire ecosystems.
I talked to a number of Marinette County voters about how environmental concerns are factoring in their vote this fall.
Doug Oitzinger, former Marinette mayor and current member of the Marinette Common Council, says they’re front and center.
"Whether it be the Back 40 Mine, which has been a longtime controversy up here across the state line in Michigan, which threatens the Menominee River; or the PFAS issue, which is immediately and is not a threat, it’s a reality. We’ve got contaminated wells and so forth," Oitzinger says.
When I talked with Kristen Edgar last week, the town of Peshtigo resident hadn’t chosen between Donald Trump or Joe Biden. She said she was weighing a lot of issues. Edgar has four kids and says education is a key concern, but so is the environment.
"I live in the small Town of Peshtigo, it’s a little small area and now they’re saying it’s the biggest PFAS contamination zone in the state of Wisconsin. And so, you’ve got people in this town that are drinking poisoned water and having to have bottled water brought in," she says. "We have to have action. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat ... I think everyone that lives in the United States deserves to have clean drinking water."
Fellow Peshtigo resident and mom, Jennifer Johnson has a wide range of concerns about PFAS contamination – from economic to public health impacts.
"We have one of the best fishing industries in our state. We have people coming from all over the world just to fish for walleye and salmon. You can’t tell me Lake Michigan isn’t contaminated by this when we have it running off directly into the bay. ... I’ve also noticed there’s been an explosion of cancers in our area," Johnson says. "Pancreatic cancer is becoming a really big one in our area. I’m hearing of more and more people coming down with that and we’ve lost family ourselves due to it, so it’s really tough."
Johnson, who says she’ll proudly be casting her vote for Trump Tuesday morning, thinks the PFAS crisis needs to be addressed at every level of government — local, state and federal.
"It’s easy for everybody to blame Donald Trump for everything that’s going on in the world right now. He is the president, enough said. But when you roll it back and take it back to the local level, whether it’s your state or your local district, you’re able to hold them accountable. And they’re the ones that are supposed to be speaking up for the people," Johnson says.
Each Marinette County resident I spoke with shared varying degrees of concern about environmental issues, as well as the coronavirus pandemic and how our country will come out on the other side.
Another common thread emerged. The voters, whether firmly decided or not quite, said finding a path toward compromise — from the hyper-local neighbor level to the highest level of government — is essential.
Johnson puts it this way: "I have a lot of really close friends that are liberal, I lean conservative. We have conversations and at the end of the day, we’re still friends. I think the conversations do need to happen; a lot of very serious conversations need to happen. There’s always room for compromise. Just because you’re not going to like all of the outcomes, doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice to be heard."
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