EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Andi Rich (left) and former Marinette Mayor Doug Oitzinger were two members of the public who spoke at a public hearing about water concerns Wednesday at Embers 1871 in Peshtigo.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard

Andi Rich (left) and former Marinette Mayor Doug Oitzinger were two members of the public who spoke at a public hearing about water concerns Wednesday at Embers 1871 in Peshtigo.

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Editor’s note: This story is the second of two articles regarding the PFAS open house and community update. The first article ran in Thursday’s EagleHerald.

PESHTIGO — Crowd commentary at Tyco Fire Protections Products’ open house and community update on Wednesday began with earnest questions, but soon escalated into passionate calls for action and corporate responsibility.

The open house and community update at Embers 1871, located at W3529 County Trunk B in Peshtigo, featured a panel of speakers from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), Tyco and its parent company Johnson Controls, and Tyco’s hired design and consultancy firm Arcadis. Dozens of area residents and concerned citizens came to listen to an update and ask questions about ongoing water contamination in the Town of Peshtigo and surrounding areas, which Tyco is trying to mitigate.

Tyco, before its purchase by Johnson Controls, began using PFAS (per- and 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 groundwater outside of the site, 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) for PFAS of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) 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 affecting reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological systems.

Tyco is primarily focusing on two PFAS compounds — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) — in the affected private wells in the Town of Peshtigo and contaminated surface water ditches. So far, the company has stuck to testing and addressing contaminated wells on a case-by-case basis, but John Perkins, Vice President of Environmental Health & Safety for Johnson Controls, announced Wednesday evening that Tyco would be moving forward with a more long-term solution of pursuing and financing the laying of City of Marinette municipal water and wastewater lines to affected properties.

Perkins also laid out a list of investigations and interim actions Tyco had taken and continues to take regarding the spread of PFAS in the area, including the sampling of 168 private drinking water wells, 110 of which had no detection of PFAS, 42 with detections below the HAL and 16 with detections above the HAL; the installation and maintenance of 37 point-of-entry treatment systems for affected wells; the installation of a water extraction treatment system in a ditch running along Tyco’s Marinette property and a pending approval of a similar system for a ditch running through the City of Marinette; and surface water, groundwater, on-site sewers, soil and fish PFAS testing the company plans to continue in 2019 and beyond.

Former Marinette mayor Doug Oitzinger asked the panel what sort of manufacturing process led to PFAS from the fire testing site being flushed into the City of Marinette’s wastewater system and subsequently, the city’s biosolids produced from its wastewater processing. A May 23, 2018, test of the biosolids holding tank at the wastewater plant found the PFOA level at 10 micrograms per kilogram (ug/Kg) and the PFOS level at 210 ug/Kg, or 10,000 ppt and 210,000 ppt, respectively. New samples from the tank were taken Sept. 25, and results are still pending. The city received a letter on Sept. 10 from the DNR requesting the biosolids be held in a holding tank until further notice. The biosolids, more commonly known as sludge, are typically spread on local agricultural land as fertilizer, but the DNR asked the City of Marinette to voluntarily store the biosolids for the year in order to keep the contaminants from re-entering the local groundwater. The tank will approach capacity this fall. 

Mike Bedard with Arcadis responded to Oitzinger’s question with a description of Tyco’s current process for fire foam testing, which is sprayed, collected and discharged into the wastewater system in a controlled flow. However, Bedard said the City of Marinette recently asked Tyco to temporarily cease foam discharge for a 30-day period while some testing is conducted at the wastewater treatment plant, which the company has done. 

The past spread of PFAS-laden biosolids on local agricultural land, particularly in the Town of Porterfield, had many crowd members concerned. One unidentified individual said, “it sounds like we’ve got a big circle going.” 

In response, Dave Neste, hydrogeologist with the DNR, said the DNR is aware of the fields the biosolids were spread on and will be investigating in the future, but right now the agency is focusing on interim actions to address “larger issues.” 

Marinette resident Andi Rich criticized Johnson Controls and Tyco for the lack of public notice about the open house event and overall lack of transparency. She also asked for a list of fields sprayed with the contaminated sludge to be made publicly available. 

“Give us the opportunity to protect ourselves,” she said. “Maybe your plan isn’t going to address this immediately, but let us know that we should be concerned, that we should be testing our wells out there. There’s no reason that you can’t work with the city to put together a list of where this sludge has been placed so that we can do everything that we can to protect our families.” 

Several citizens expressed an interest in community-wide surveys or testing to see how the local population’s health has been affected by the PFAS contamination. Corey Romasko, who lives on Green Gable Road in the Town of Peshtigo and has an affected well, asked why the DHS was not pursuing a health study currently. Toxicologist Rob Thiboldeaux said the DHS has begun the process of applying for federal funding to conduct a health study, but currently no plans are in the works. 

“You’re asking questions that, as a scientific community, we’re also struggling with,” Thiboldeaux said. “There is intense interest in this.” 

“You can’t put a dollar sign on human life,” Romasko replied. 

More information on Tyco’s mitigation efforts can be found at http://marinette.tycofpp.com/.