MARINETTE — The Marinette City Council had a lengthy discussion with officials from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) during its Wednesday night meeting about the groundwater and surface water contamination from the Johnson Controls/Tyco Fire Protection Products training facility in city limits. 

Prior to the DNR’s presentation and discussion, the council heard public comment from former Marinette mayor Doug Oitzinger about his concerns regarding the ongoing contamination situation involving per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) present in groundwater beyond Johnson Controls properties. Oitzinger asked that a public forum be held for Marinette citizens interested in voicing concerns and asking questions of the DNR about PFAS, and said he was particularly concerned about the DNR’s hold placed on bio-solids extracted by the city water treatment facility this year and next year due to high concentrations of PFAS, and about the wildlife, such as deer and fish, that consume the contaminated surface water and may subsequently wind up in the local food supply. 

“This stuff is racing toward the bay,” he said. “The good news is the city’s drinking water supply was tested in November of 2017, showing low levels of PFAS, but the bad news is it didn’t test clear of these compounds. The science of the effects of these compounds on human health is continually being updated, and it is showing that ever lower concentrations can have an adverse effect on our health.” 

Representing the DNR at Wednesday’s meeting were Steve Ales, field operations director for the Remediation & Redevelopment Program, which oversees spills and discharges of hazardous substances; Kyle Burton, field operations director with the Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater; and Adrian Stocks, wastewater field operations director. Ales opened by explaining the PFAS source, the firefighting foams used at the Johnson Controls fire training center in Marinette, and said that the DNR’s investigation about the contamination is not complete. 

“They (Johnson Controls) submitted a report to us in early October, they’re doing an extensive amount of work,” he said, adding later that the report is about 27,000 pages long. “They’re collecting an extensive amount of groundwater samples, surface water samples, sediment samples, surface water and sediment from the streams that basically go east and southeast, south from that fire training center.” 

Ales reiterated that the shallow groundwater is contaminated with PFAS compounds from the fire training center in plumes running east and southeast toward Lake Michigan. So far, the area most impacted by the contamination has been the Town of Peshtigo, where personal wells have been tested repeatedly and found concentrations of PFAS. Johnson Controls is currently providing bottled water for Town of Peshtigo residents with affected wells who request it. Soil contamination remains primarily on site at the fire training center, and contaminated surface water in a few ditches running from the center is being addressed by filtration systems proposed by Johnson Controls. 

The Remediation & Redevelopment Program’s next step, Ales said, is to write a review letter for the report and point out areas where Johnson Controls can do more to address the contamination. He said he hoped to have it out in late November or early December. 

Ward 7 Alderman Rick Polzin asked Ales if he could “put this contamination in context” for the council. Ales said the State of Wisconsin is fairly new to the study and management of “emergent contaminants” such as PFAS, compared to states like Michigan and Minnesota, which have dealt with PFAS contamination for some time with companies such as the multi-field manufacturing company 3M. 

“We, quite honestly, have only been looking at these for the last year or so,” he said. “We’re a little late to the game on this, to be quite honest with you.” 

Ales added that the PFAS compounds, which are designed to repel dirt, oil and grease, are used often in manufacturing because “they work so well,” but not a lot is known about their effects on human and environmental health. He said that one thing missing in the discussion about PFAS is some direction from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has issued an federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt), but individual states have begun to regulate concentrations on their own without concrete federal guidance to go on. The City of Marinette, when its water was tested in November 2017, saw concentrations of 2.11 ppt prior to water treatment and 1.79 ppt after treatment. 

One of the dangers of PFAS contamination that Ales outlined was the fact that, because they are designed to repel rather than adhere, the compounds can travel a long distance in water systems. He gave examples of water plumes with PFAS contamination that were tracked a couple of miles from the original sources in Minnesota and Ohio. 

Ward 8 Alderman Jason Flatt asked how long the PFAS could remain in the environment once released. Ales replied that he did not have a clear answer to that, as PFAS compounds “don’t tend to degrade.” 

Burton then gave an overview on how the DNR can work with the City of Marinette’s water treatment program to monitor the situation. 

“Because it’s not a federally-regulated contaminant, and because we do have sample results here from November of last year that were minuscule amounts, very low results, we don’t really have the authority to require more sampling,” he said. “That being said, if the city were to choose to do some investigative sampling, and wanted to work with us on what that might look like, we’d be willing to engage with the city to talk about what you really want to learn from that sampling, and then maybe go about taking those samples.” 

Marinette’s Water & Wastewater Operations Manager Warren Howard said he planned to speak to the Water & Wastewater Commission this month to recommend proposed monthly sampling of city water from three points of the water processing system to keep an eye on PFAS levels. 

“At face value, that sounds very reasonable,” Burton said. 

Stocks addressed the hold the DNR had placed on the city’s water treatment bio-solids, commonly known as sludge, and said the state was taking the “cautious approach” toward the PFAS contamination in the extracted solids, as they are typically spread on crop fields as fertilizer. 

Ward 4 Alderman Brian Walters asked what sort of effects PFAS could have on wildlife that consume contaminated surface water. Ales said there was “not a lot of data” on the topic, though PFAS are known to “bio-accumulate” within animals’ systems, which has been studied more in fish than other wildlife. He added that the DNR is working with sites around the U.S. and the world to study impacted environments and wildlife to work on a remedy for contamination. 

Ward 3 Alderman John Marx said he was concerned about local deer culls and hunts, which put venison on the shelves of local food pantries. 

“Is this something we should discontinue?” he asked. Ales said he would take that question back to his department. 

Marx also asked how the area’s contamination compared to other sites of contamination around the country. Stocks said he was unable to give a firm answer, but he said he was aware of other contamination sites with much higher levels of PFAS contamination, citing one in lower Michigan. 

The council took no action on the topic. At the end of the meeting, Mayor Steve Genisot thanked the council members for their questions and said he would “certainly entertain” hosting another discussion with the DNR for further questions. 

In other business: 

¦ Genisot addressed a number of complaints the City of Marinette had received regarding the voting process on Tuesday, and thanked the City Clerk’s Office for the time and energy its staff and volunteers put into Election Day. 

“I cannot understate the amount of time and efforts that the clerk and her staff have put into this,” he said, referring to City Clerk Lana Bero. “We all know it was very challenging, one of the higher turnouts we’ve had in the city.” 

Genisot added that the city would take comments regarding how the voting process can be improved, and that the city looked forward to the Community REC Center’s opening to host future elections. He also encouraged city residents to vote early and skip the voting lines entirely.