MARINETTE — The spread of emerging contaminants has made its way to the City of Peshtigo and into fields where the municipality spreads its wastewater biosolids, a release from the city and comments from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Tyco Fire Protection Products/Johnson controls confirmed recently. 

The emerging contaminants within the biosolids, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), originate from local fire suppression system manufacturer Tyco. Tyco began using PFAS 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 announced in November 2017. Since then, Tyco has been conducting an environmental assessment of its facilities and the surrounding areas in cooperation with the DNR. 

A health advisory level (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of two PFAS compounds, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), was set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2016 for drinking water, after studies of the chemicals’ effects over time showed a variety of adverse health effects.

Tyco revealed this spring that it also performed testing of firefighting foams containing PFAS at one of its leased facilities in Peshtigo, a warehouse located at 150 Pine St. that is owned by BPM Inc. In a release put out April 29, the City of Peshtigo stated it was made aware of the contamination on March 15 by Tyco. 

“As a result of the testing, foam was discharged into the city sewer system and was ultimately collected at the city’s wastewater treatment plant,” the release from Mayor Cathi Malke reads. “It appears that the testing by Tyco in Peshtigo was conducted periodically since 2010.” 

Tyco confirmed the discharge, and voluntarily ceased to send any more PFAS-containing chemicals into the city’s sewers after being asked by the city.

“What we do there is flow testing and discharge testing,” said Tyco’s Scott Wahl, who added that the contamination was limited to what was sent into the wastewater system. “It’s self-contained.” 

The City of Peshtigo also contacted the Wisconsin DNR about the situation. 

“City officials have taken measures to stop or curb the spread of the chemicals, despite the absence of guidance and lack of enforceable federal or Wisconsin environmental standards for the chemicals,” the city’s release said. “Although there is no law prohibiting the spread of these chemicals on farm fields, existing sewage treatment sludge at the wastewater treatment plant will be tested and the application of the material on local farms’ fields have been halted.” 

The city has also “initiated testing of its municipal water system as a precautionary measure to assure city residents that their drinking water is safe,” and added in the release that the city’s water is unlikely to be affected, as it comes from deep drilled wells. The city plans to publish the testing results as soon as as they are available, along with a list of farm field sites where sludge from the city has been spread in the past. 

The DNR confirmed Friday that its wastewater program was working with the City of Peshtigo to assess the situation and compile a list of affected fields similar to the list released for the City of Marinette. 

“The Department is in the early stages of the investigation process,” said Bureau of Water Quality Director Adrian Stocks. “At this time we are working with relevant parties to gather information necessary for the identification of possible sources and potential discharges in the Peshtigo and Marinette areas. Once evaluated, this information will allow us to form the framework for a comprehensive investigation moving forward.”

Stocks said the City of Peshtigo’s water testing was not required by the DNR, but testing of the city’s drinking water at the entry point of each well has been completed. Sample results from the first round of testing for all PFAS compounds analyzed were non-detects, he said, except for one detect of PFHpA, at entry point 4, which was recorded at 0.85 ppt.

“The City of Peshtigo has voluntarily chosen to have its wastewater biosolids analyzed for PFAS compounds and is voluntarily holding their biosolids until laboratory results have been received,” Stocks said. 

The neighboring City of Marinette has been dealing with a similar problem, and recently posted records of area agricultural fields that received City of Marinette biosolids for fertilizer dating back to 1996. The posting was prompted by the DNR after sampling of Marinette’s biosolids detected highly-elevated levels of PFAS, which were likely transferred to the agricultural fields the biosolids were spread on as fertilizer. Marinette Mayor Steve Genisot said the city was also working to develop a map of the affected fields for public use. 

The DNR determines what amount of biosolids sourced from municipalities can be spread on any particular field through testing. Tanker trucks ship the biosolids from wastewater treatment plants to the designated fields that do not grow crops for human consumption, where their contents are distributed and turned into the soil with specialized equipment after the harvest season. Farmers interested in using biosolids as fertilizer must fill out an application with the DNR to do so: A copy of the form can be found at https://dnr.wi.gov/files/PDF/forms/3400/3400-053.pdf.