EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Stream water leads to the Bay of Green Bay just off Bay Shore Street in Marinette on Jan. 3. Johnson Controls continues to work with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to determine the spread of PFAS contamination in local groundwater, but there is no end in sight for the project. 
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard

Stream water leads to the Bay of Green Bay just off Bay Shore Street in Marinette on Jan. 3. Johnson Controls continues to work with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to determine the spread of PFAS contamination in local groundwater, but there is no end in sight for the project. 


MARINETTE — It’s been over a year since Johnson Controls announced the spread of groundwater contamination from its fire testing facility in Marinette, and so far there is no end in sight for the remediation efforts or the final price tag this project will have for the company and the community affected. 

Tyco Fire Products, before its purchase by Johnson Controls, 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 discovered via water testing and announced in November 2017. Since then, Johnson Controls has been conducting an environmental assessment of its facilities and the surrounding areas. 

The company submitted two work plans to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for continued work on the project, which were approved on April 27. One plan was a long-term potable well sampling plan, primarily implemented in the Town of Peshtigo. Out of the 137 wells tested during the winter after Johnson Controls initially became aware of the contamination, 97 revealed no contamination, 29 revealed PFAS below the health advisory level (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) set by the EPA and 11 revealed PFAS above the HAL.

The HAL was set in place by the EPA in 2016 for drinking water. The decision was 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. 

This past spring, Johnson Controls tested 129 wells, most of which were repeat tests but some of which were new. Of the 129, 71 revealed no contamination, 23 revealed PFAS below the HAL and one above the HAL. Johnson Controls tested 91 wells in the fall, nine of which were tested for the first time. However, the company did not make available testing results solely for the fall, instead releasing an overall list of results for wells tested since the company began its sampling: 168 wells have been tested in total, with 41 wells testing below the HAL, 15 testing above the HAL. Two well testing results are still in progress. 

POET systems (point-of-entry water treatment systems) were offered for those with wells containing PFAS, whether below or above the HAL. A total of 37 have been installed so far, according to Johnson Controls. 

Marinette municipal water has not detected any concentration in finished drinking water of one type of PFAS, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), but November tests have shown that finished drinking 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). More information on the city’s water testing results can be found at www.marinette.wi.us/361/PFOA-and-PFOS-Investigation. 

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. Placement has raised concerns from neighbors of the property.

Currently, Johnson Controls is also working to meet recommendations set forth by the DNR in a Dec. 7 letter asking the company to determine the full horizontal and vertical extent of the contamination; develop a plan for surface water ponds and fish in the known area of impact, as well as the Bay of Green Bay; prepare an Interim Action Options Report to address the contamination migrating beyond the fire testing center’s boundaries; and address five field activities outlined in the April work plan that have yet to be undertaken. The DNR gave Johnson Controls until Feb. 5 to submit a supplemental site investigation work plan to address the recommendations, which Johnson Controls’ senior project manager Chris Behrend said the company is working on. 

“We’re addressing those right now,” he said in an interview on Jan. 4. “We went through all of those items and reported on those. Those are the next steps in the process. ... Some of the items, we’re still working through what actions will be. This is the normal rhythm.” 

According to the DNR’s Stephen M. Ales, who works in the Remediation and Redevelopment Program, there is no specific recommendation which the department is most concerned with when it comes to the contamination assessment and remediation. 

“Our review letter outlines the areas we think are deficient and all these need to be addressed in order to meet the requirements of the code,” he said Monday. “The DNR anticipates that all the items outlined in our  review letter will be addressed in the next work plan, and will be of sufficient detail to properly describe and outline the next steps of the field investigation.” 

In response to the DNR’s recommendations, Johnson Controls tested private wells near Rader Road and Shore Drive, with results remaining consistent with those from the surrounding area: Five of 6 results failed to detect any PFOA/PFOS, while the remaining result will undergo “final quality control steps.” Vertical aquifer profile (VAP) testing was conducted near Heath Lane and Shore Drive, a total of five VAP borings and 16 intervals sampled, with results failing to detect or indicating levels below the HAL of PFOA/PFOS.

Johnson Controls is also planning another public outreach event, tentatively set for Feb. 26. 

“We continue to collaborate with the DNR on a weekly basis,” Behrend said. 

Ales said there is no information available as to how long the project will take, or what sort of costs will go into it. 

To follow the progress of Johnson Controls and its mitigation efforts, those interested may visit the DNR’s dedicated clean-up and redevelopment website for the company, dnr.wi.gov/botw/GetActivityDetail.do?detailSeqNo=580694.