MARINETTE — At the request of one of its citizens, the Marinette Water & Wastewater Utilities Commissions received a brief update Monday afternoon regarding the wastewater utility’s efforts to dispose of approximately 2.5 million gallons of stored biosolids, more commonly known as sludge, that was contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

The emerging contaminant family of compounds known as PFAS is a group of substances that can be found in common household products such as stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products, polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products and firefighting foams, but can have detrimental health affects for those who consume it. PFAS in the Marinette County area originates from Tyco Fire Protection Products/Johnson Controls, which began using the compounds in the 1970s for firefighting foams and sprays, with chemical testing and training at their local testing site in Marinette. The chemicals used seeped into the groundwater, which the company publicly announced in November 2017, and some of the contamination is attributed to Tyco’s flushing of PFAS-containing chemicals into the City of Marinette wastewater system, where it collected in biosolids that were spread on local agricultural fields. Tyco’s disposal of PFAS down the drain and the city’s spreading of biosolids on local fields have been halted, and the two entities are working together to dispose of the contaminated sludge according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) safety regulations. 

Doug Oitzinger, former mayor of Marinette and member of local citizens’ action group Concerned Friends and Neighbors for Safe Drinking Water (S.O.H2O), asked members of the utilities commissions Monday whether or not the city would be offering blood serum testing to wastewater utility workers and firefighters that may have been affected by dealing with PFAS in their jobs, and how much it would cost the city to have the contaminated biosolids incinerated, which the DNR has ordered. 

“That should be, ‘it’s already been done,’ ‘we’re going to do it,’ or ‘we’re not going to do it,’” he said, regarding the blood serum testing. “Just, where are you at?” 

Water & Sewer Operations Manager Warren Howard addressed Oitzinger’s questions during his report later in the meeting, and said the city did not have plans in place yet to offer blood serum testing. Commissioner Barb Kopish asked if the city was waiting for the DNR, and Howard said there had been “some talk about funding” for PFAS-related measures such as blood serum testing for employees. 

“Nobody has come forward to us and said, ‘I want to get it done,’” he added. “If somebody, I think, then, that my job would be to go to the mayor or this commission and say, ‘I have two employees who want to get it done’ — but nobody has reached out to me.” 

Regarding incineration, Howard said safe disposal would be the main goal of the wastewater treatment plant for July. Currently, he said, City Attorney Jonathan Sbar is working on a contract with Johnson Controls to have the corporation pay for the disposal expenses “above and beyond” the city’s normal expenses. 

“Do I know what the numbers are? We’re not involved in that part of it,” Howard said. “We’re leaving that up to them, to decide where it goes, get approval from the DNR ... At the end of the day, the process is going to be at the wastewater plant, then it’s going to be shipped out to some PFAS-approved incinerator.” 

Howard said the city had looked at incineration services in Green Bay, but found they weren’t viable by the DNR’s standards. Johnson Controls is looking at two or three other locations, he said, and the city would know within the next two weeks where the contaminated biosolids would be sent once they are thickened and de-watered. The thickening process is set to begin in mid to late July, and will take approximately a month. 

“Whatever we pay per gallon to get rid of it, that’s what we’re paying. Anything above and beyond, meaning incineration, the process they’re using, that’s being pushed onto Johnson Controls, and they’ll pay that extra cost,” Howard said. “So our budget will not change.” 

Kopish asked if there would be any issue with biosolids contamination in the future, once the 2.5 million gallons stored are disposed of. Howard said the city plans to begin industrial water sampling after the biosolids are disposed of in order to pinpoint any other PFAS sources in the wastewater lines. 

“We think they’re (Johnson Controls) the bulk of it,” he said. “We’re hoping that, moving forward, they’re not sending us anything, they clean up their lines, they flush their lines. We’re taking down our storage tank, we’re cleaning it right to the bottom, we’re lowering our digesters down, we’re cleaning out two other tanks. We’re hoping that we can get it out.” 

Howard acknowledged that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services proposed new drinking water standards for PFAS levels on Friday, but said there were currently no standards set for wastewater. 

“Our goal is to get it as low as we can, and then identify if there are any other sources that are discharging, too,” he said. 

“It just makes you think, down the road, if that is absorbed into the tanks, that that might be an additional problem... that Johnson Controls might be held accountable for,” Kopish said. 

“I do not believe that it’s going to be a ‘one and done,’” Howard said. “But we won’t know until they set up a regulation.” 

The commissions took no action on the topic.