MARINETTE — The Marinette Plan Commission approved an application Wednesday for a conditional use permit from Johnson Controls and Northland Lutheran Retirement Community to install a water extraction treatment system and a building to house it along a contaminated surface ditch, the latest step in the fire protection company’s attempts to mitigate the spread of chemicals from its own facilities into the local water system. 

Tyco Fire Products began using PFAS (poly-fluoroalkyl substances) in the 1970s for firefighting foams and sprays, with chemical testing and training at their local testing site. The chemicals used seeped into the groundwater, which the company announced in November 2017. Since then, Johnson Controls has been conducting an environmental assessment of its facilities and the surrounding areas. Long-term plans include potable well samples of the affected areas, primarily in the Town of Peshtigo and City of Marinette, to ascertain whether the PFAS contamination is above, at or below the health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

The health advisory level was set in place by the EPA in 2016 based on studies of the chemicals’ effects over time which led to adverse health effects such as developmental effects on fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed infants, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty and skeletal variations; cancer, particularly of the kidneys or testicular; tissue damage to the liver; changes in antibody production and the immune system; hormonal disruption; and other effects including cholesterol changes and a malfunctioning thyroid. 

POET systems (point-of-entry water treatment systems) have been offered by Johnson Controls for those with wells containing PFAS, whether below or above the EPA health advisory level. Marinette municipal water has not detected any concentration of one type of PFAS, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), but recent tests have shown that water at Marinette High School and at a hydrant by the new Community REC Center reveal concentrations of 1.8 ppt of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). 

In addition to the water testing, Johnson Controls is also engaged in a project to address PFAS levels in two local surface water ditches, “Ditch A” and “Ditch B.” Ditch A runs through the Tyco Fire Technology Center and follows a southeastern path toward the Town of Peshtigo. A granular activated carbon treatment system for Ditch A, on Johnson Controls property, has already been installed, though no numbers about the system’s effectiveness at filtering out PFAS have been released yet. Ditch B crosses West Bay Shore Street and runs through Runnoe Park in the City of Marinette, and Johnson Controls is seeking to place another treatment system on the campus of Northland Lutheran, at 925 Pine Beach Road in Marinette.

The Plan Commission held a public hearing Wednesday about the conditional use permit for the treatment system on Ditch B prior to its vote on the matter, which was attended by a number of concerned neighbors to the project as well as their attorney, Ralph Weber of Gass Weber Mullins Inc. in Milwaukee. 

“The reason I’m here today is to ask that, before you proceed, let the public know more specifically what’s going on,” he said. “Let’s table this today, provide the information, and then give your friends and neighbors the chance to come back with any questions that remain.” 

Among Weber’s calls for explanation were questions regarding why the filtration building couldn’t be placed across the street on county land, how long the building would be there, what sort of noise its pump system would generate, how much activity would be involved in its upkeep, and how the system would change and affect the water flow. Doug Oitzinger, former Marinette mayor and current city resident, also handed out a list of questions he had about the project to Plan Commission members and Johnson Controls officials and read them aloud during the public hearing. He asked what the anticipated levels for PFAS would be in the water after going through the filtration process, how often the water would be tested for PFAS, whether a broad range of testing for PFAS would be conducted, how the public would access the testing results, what the anticipated noise level from the system would be, how frequently the water filters would be replaced and what kind of trucks would be used to remove the spent water filters. 

Finishing off public comment during the hearing were Johnsons Controls’ senior program manager Chris Behrend and senior manager for marketing communications Jim Cox and Arcadis’ principal engineer Ben Verburg. Johnson Controls has partnered with Arcadis on the design of the filtration systems.

“As you’ve heard, PFAS has been identified within this ditch, and it’s important to note that this is not drinking water, but surface water running through a ditch,” Behrend said. “Tyco would like to install a treatment system adjacent to this ditch and begin treating water just as soon as possible. We firmly believe we are doing the right thing, and we want to do so in the most expeditious way that we can.” 

Behrend said that Johnson Controls had extended an offer to meet with neighbors of the property to talk about the project, some of which he said took the company up on the offer and had discussions with project officials. Verburg then ran through each of the eight conditions the Plan Commission must follow when considering a conditional use permit, laying out why Johnson Controls and Arcadis believed the project met all of the conditions. 

While discussing the first standard for a conditional use permit, whether or not the project will be detrimental to public health, safety, morals, comfort or general welfare, Ward 3 Alderman John Marx asked how the Plan Commission would be able to vote if they did not have all the information about the project’s possible environmental effects. 

“For example, the discharge,” he said. “What assurance do we have that the discharge will be within the acceptable levels? I have not heard anything about discharge levels, all I have heard is the high amount (of PFAS) in Ditch B.” 

City Attorney Jonathan Sbar reminded commissioners that the conditional use was not an examination of the project’s specifications, as the site plans for the treatment system would still have to be approved by the Plan Commission in the future. 

“That would be another opportunity to ask questions about the design elements of the structure,” he said. 

Marx asked the representatives from Johnson Controls and Arcadis what sort of noise would be expected from the pumps. Verburg said the system has been designed to minimize vibrations and noise, though he could not provide a definitive decibel level until the plans are finalized. He added that the information about the specifications would be available during the site plan approval process, and that Johnson Controls and Arcadis were working with the city building inspector as well as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to finalize the plans for approval. 

Commissioner Steve Lang asked if the water flow of the ditch would be affected by the treatment system. Verburg said the surface water would be removed by a sump pump in the ditch itself, but the structure around it is not designed to create a pond or change the flow, even in larger rain events. 

“I’m still concerned about the public health portion,” Marx said. “What will the level of contamination be as it leaves the filtration system, and will 100 percent of the water be filtered?” 

“One hundred percent of the recovered ditch water will be filtered,” Verburg replied. “It will be designed to have base flow conditions that will actually go through the structure itself to maintain flow within the stream. So, a majority of the water will be captured during base flow conditions, but it will be allowed to flow also as part of the structure.” 

“A percentage of the water, that concerns me,” Marx said. “If we know the levels are extremely high, what will the discharge levels (of PFAS) be? I’m concerned that we’re ... discharging into the bay contamination levels that are not acceptable.” 

Verburg said the system will be sampled in accordance with the DNR’s requirements to make sure PFAS levels would be lowered or removed. He did not give an estimate of how many parts per trillion of PFAS were expected in the filtered water. 

Lang asked what sort of trucks and crews would be maintaining and replacing the filters. Verburg said that a single vacuum truck would be visiting about once a month and would take a full day of work to replenish the carbon and change out the filter. Behrend added that the truck access had been discussed with Northland Lutheran and was part of their easement agreement. 

The Plan Commission voted unanimously in favor of the treatment system’s application on each of the eight standards for conditional use, approving the project overall. Commissioners Tom Crowley and Keith Killen were not present and did not vote. Site plans for the treatment system will likely be shown at the next Plan Commission meeting along with more opportunity for public comment. 

A number of those who attended the Plan Commission meeting on Wednesday spoke with Behrend, Cox and Verburg in the hall outside the council chambers following the meeting, many of whom expressed dissatisfaction with the project and called for more transparency regarding the water contamination.