EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Doug Oitzinger, Marinette, speaks at Wednesday’s DNR PFAS listening session while WDNR officials listen to his and countless other concerns and frustrations voiced by area residents. From left, are: Adrian Stocks, DNR water quality management; Dave Neste, DNR hydrologist; Christine Haag, DNR Bureau director; and Trevor Nobile, DNR field operations director.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard

Doug Oitzinger, Marinette, speaks at Wednesday’s DNR PFAS listening session while WDNR officials listen to his and countless other concerns and frustrations voiced by area residents. From left, are: Adrian Stocks, DNR water quality management; Dave Neste, DNR hydrologist; Christine Haag, DNR Bureau director; and Trevor Nobile, DNR field operations director.

MARINETTE— “Every question leads to another question,” said one unidentified area resident who stood to address a room of concerned people, local and state officials and other interested parties packed into a standing-room only Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources PFAS Information Session. 

During the noon session, the questions often lead to frustration with the ongoing PFAS (per- and –polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination and investigation unfolding in the Marinette and surrounding regions. PFAS represents a family of over 4,000 chemicals used in many industry and consumer products. They are known for their probable links to various heath hazards.  

The meeting served as the sixth monthly PFAS Listening Session organized and hosted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as a way to inform, educate and engage area residents about various PFAS topics and provide updates on the current state of the investigation and cleanup of contamination in the Marinette area. Wednesday’s noon and evening sessions focus on themes of health.

Wisconsin Department of Health (DHS) Toxicologist Clara Jeong and DHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jon Meiman attended the session to give a short presentation on health impacts as they relate to PFAS exposure.

Through bombardment of audience questions, Jeong and Meiman managed to emphasize the primary message they hoped that everyone in attendance carried away.

“We know enough from the health effects (of PFAS) to know that the best way we can protect you is to stop the exposure,” Meiman said, addressing the audience. 

Jeong explained that PFAS medical research represents a relatively new and emerging endeavor among the science community. She also explained that slow federal and state responsive actions to address PFAS issues sometimes transpire as agencies struggle adjust to rapidly developing information. 

“New information is coming out every day,” Jeong said. “We (are) very busy (trying) to understand what is going on and what are the impacts that people can experience. And what should be done to protect the public.” 

Jeong touched on four human health-related topics. The first outlined the role of the DHS. Secondly, she provided an opportunity to compare and contrast issues in Marinette by recounting — and learning from — events in other communities heavily contaminated by PFAS. 

The final two topics brought the discussion back to Wisconsin and Marinette and the lives it affects at home by asking residents to consider two questions.

“What does it mean to us: What does it mean to our families and my family and our community’s health?” Jeong said. “And what should be done … to protect our community from any future PFAS contamination.”  

FRUSTRATIONS AND CONCERN 

However, at various points along the way, topics veered when passions and frustrations flared. Much of that frustration emerged from the current lack of federal and state legal standards that designate PFAS limits in groundwater, surface water and drinking water sources. 

The Environmental Health Protection Agency (EPA) issued a lifetime health advisory level (HAL) in 2016 for combined PFOA and PFOS (the most well-known and researched PFAS compounds) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in drinking water.

In Wisconsin, the DHS issued recommendations to avoid consumption of water that measures at or over 20 ppt of combined PFOS and PFOA. Additionally, the WDNR continues an effort to establish legislation and rules better governing the regulation of PFAS levels present in Wisconsin’s water sources. 

So while the WDNR endeavors to work with entities responsible for Marinette’s PFAS contamination — Johnson Control Inc. and Tyco Fire Products LP — to provide oversight and enforcement during the process of remediation and redevelopment, department officials explained it must work within the confines of the law.    

“We have laws and we have administrative code that we live within,” explained WDNR Remediation and Redevelopment Program Director Christine Haag to those in attendance. “I don’t live (in Marinette) and I don’t live with your situation every day. So I can’t pretend to know what it is like to be you … but I can assure you that I don’t have a single colleague that shows up on a daily basis and isn’t concerned, and isn’t doing what they can to make this (situation) better … we are with you on this … and that comes right from my heart.”  

At one point, Marinette resident Wendel Johnson, offered supportive words to the WDNR and also commented on the scope of complexities involved in establishing PFAS legal standards.  He said that the Department of Natural Resources is not a political body and they do not make the laws. They can only enforce the laws and provide oversight of laws created and passed by state legislators. 

“We need to listen to these people today and we need to ask thoughtful questions,” Johnson said. “(The WDNR) is not responsible for our problem. We are partly responsible … because so often we looked the other way and the environment was not our main concern. There are reasons for our problem today and a good portion of them are lax laws — or no laws at all — with regard to protecting the environment. So I encourage all of you to put a new confidence in the group of people that we have to work for us.” 

City of Marinette Mayor Steve Genisot, who attended the meeting, also addressed the lack of PFAS legislation and the support the DNR brings to the Marinette PFAS cleanup.  

“We look at the DNR as a body to help (relieve) us on the effort,” Genisot said. “But we also look to legislature. It is not going to happen at a local level, or even the county level. It needs to come from Madison to set (that PFAS standard) number, so the DNR has a number they can make everyone abide by.”