EagleHerald/John Liesveld
Another part to the Marinette PFAS story powers up later this week. The new Granular Activated Carbon filtration system will filter PFAS from the water running through Ditch B, located near Northland Lutheran Home Health in Marinette.  
EagleHerald/John Liesveld

Another part to the Marinette PFAS story powers up later this week. The new Granular Activated Carbon filtration system will filter PFAS from the water running through Ditch B, located near Northland Lutheran Home Health in Marinette.  

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MARINETTE—When it comes to per- and fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), listening and speaking to government officials and industry representatives in Wisconsin or to the individual residents living in, or near, the City of Marinette, the conversations inevitably circle around to regulation of those chemicals. More specifically, they narrow in on the lack of an enforceable federal or State of Wisconsin legal standard for PFAS levels in drinking water, groundwater or surface water. 

In Wisconsin, only a recommended health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for drinking water exists, even while the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources suggest revising to 20 ppt. All the while, evidence continues to mount, concerning adverse health impacts of PFAS exposure. That lack of a legal standard frustrates many people.

“(It) puts (the city) in a tough situation because we are trying to manage a problem for which we are asking the DNR’s help because there is no federal standard,” said City of Marinette Mayor Steve Genisot. “It gets complicated when there are no set numbers. Hopefully, those numbers will be determined at some point in the future.”

Retired expert in geology and water resource engineering Jeff Lamont agrees with Genisot.  He spent 28 years working for a large environmental firm, CH2M Hill and assisted in several massive environmental cleanups for the Department of Defense, EPA and private clients across the U.S. and Canada. 

“The EPA has dragged their feet for well over a decade on setting standards for these contaminants,” Lamont said. 

Until then, a few other sets of numbers reflect only a small portion of the story that officially began unfolding in Marinette two years ago.

PFAS BY THE NUMBERS

By the numbers and the facts, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) report that 19 million people, across 43 states, which includes 610 sites in, or near, American communities, confront the consequential effects of PFAS exposure as a result of industrial activity. Some of the more well-known cases and studies include an epidemiological survey near West Virginia manufacturing plant owned by DuPont de Nemours Inc. It examined the health impact of PFOA exposure and found correlations to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, high cholesterol and other health and environmental impacts.  

By the numbers and the facts, to date, the responsible parties in Marinette (Johnson Control Inc. and its subsidiary Tyco Fire Products LP) report activities they have undertaken since identifying the contamination. They sampled 171 homes or private drinking water wells. They continue to supply 128 homes with regular deliveries of bottled water. They have installed 39 homes with water filtration treatment systems, called POETS (point-of-entry treatment systems). They installed a filtration system that treated over 24 million gallons of water in Ditch A – a stream running tangent to the Tyco testing facility. And they finalized $1 million for refurbished wastewater lines in the City of Marinette and spent $3 million for PFAS-contaminated biosolids treatment and removal from the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). 

Additionally, later this week, another large-scale Granular Activated Carbon filtering system will be up and running on Ditch B, a stream that ferries runoff water away from the property of the large Tyco facility on Industrial Pkwy. 

MORE THAN NUMBERS

However, it takes much more than numbers to tell a story; and everyone involved, from the affected residents, to industry officials, to Wisconsin city and state government representatives agree that numbers cannot adequately describe the human impact. 

Linda Phillips remembers careening around the block on her bike as a young girl with friends.  She remembers the large plumes of smoke that occasionally billowed up from the Ansul fire testing grounds, now identified as Tyco.

“When you saw it, you knew Ansul was testing again,” Phillips said. “It just became part of our lives. We grew up with it. We never once realized it was going to harm us.”

Now Phillips suffers from various symptoms identified as potential correlates of PFAS exposure: a compromised immune system, high cholesterol and others. She has seen an oncology specialist but no one can identify the cause of her ailments, she explained to the EagleHerald during the Oct. 16 DNR PFAS Listening Session in Marinette. 

For 16 years, she and her husband, Larry, have lived near one of the sites where a relatively recent sign next to the stream now reads “ADVISORY: Possible Chemical Exposure Hazard – This water contains PFAS.” 

When they learned that the federal government enforces no set PFAS standard, Larry’s words summed up their feelings.

“We are not surprised,” he said.

In the meantime, people like Lamont and Marinette resident Chuck Boyle Jr., who belongs to S.O.H2O (Save Our Water) Concerned Friends & Neighbors, continue to lobby at the state and federal level to implement strict standards on PFAS levels in the environment. 

For example, both Boyle and Lamont highlight the CLEAR Act (Chemical Level Enforcement and Remediation), currently – and slowly, both Boyle and Lamont noted – moving through the Wisconsin legislature. The bill would enable the DNR to more efficiently establish enforceable health standards and create a long-term plan that focuses on PFAS pollution and the public health.

Pending the bill’s passage, the story remains complicated, one told by numbers, individuals, local city officials and industry, all waiting for action. Until then, the only number everyone can agree on is the number “one”: One community, working together to try to navigate one big problem.