Johnson Controls directed to provide drinking water to homes with wells impacted by ‘forever’ chemicals

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MARINETTE – Johnson Controls has been directed to provide three more homeowners with bottled water after elevated levels of “forever chemicals” were detected in their private drinking wells. 

The three wells were among a sampling of 61 wells done by the company and its subsidiary Tyco Fire Products in the areas surrounding Marinette and Peshtigo, north of Green Bay, according to a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announcement Tuesday. 

Two of the wells measured at just above 20 parts per trillion of perfluorinated chemicals, while the third measured at 1,157 parts per trillion, the information said. The standard recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services is 20 parts per trillion. 

Drinking water was delivered to the homes on April 9 and 10, the DNR release said. 

Tyco first started providing bottled water and water purification systems to affected residents in 2017.

PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because of their difficulty to break down in the environment. The substances can repel both oil and water and have been used for decades in products like stain-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware and firefighting foam. 

They are able to move freely through the environment, which leads to their discovery in surface water, groundwater, sediment and soil and in fish.  

They pose potential health hazards to humans and Johnson Controls is currently providing water to several other homes with tainted wells in the same area.

Tyco Fire Products had sprayed firefighting foam with perfluorinated chemicals at a training center in Marinette since 1962. It ended outdoor testing and training sessions there in late 2017. 

The PFAS contamination in Marinette is the most widely known in Wisconsin. In August, Johnson Controls said it was setting aside $140 million in its fiscal third quarter on the cleanup.

Last year, Johnson Controls argued with the DNR over whether it should be solely responsible for the assessment of the extent of the chemicals when the state agency has agreed that there are other potential sources of pollution. The Glendale-based company was supposed to have reported to the DNR by Sept. 3 but failed to do so. 

That dispute followed another in which the DNR referred Johnson controls to the state Department of Justice, alleging it waited four years to report the release of hazardous chemicals at its plant in Marinette. That release resulted in some residents unknowingly drinking water for years that was contaminated.  

The Department of Health Service told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in December it is considering conducting a cancer cluster assessment in the Marinette and Peshtigo areas after residents reported their stories of having cancer and other serious illnesses at a public meeting on Dec. 18.

Out of the other wells that were tested, 48 had no detectable levels of PFAS, six wells were below the reporting limit and four wells were between the reporting limit and the maximum limit, the DNR said in a release. 

The results will be discussed with residents during two listening sessions on Wednesday — one at noon and another at 6 p.m., the DNR said in a release. The sessions will be held online, to comply with social distancing. 

RELATED: Pollution cases involving ‘forever’ chemicals are growing across Wisconsin

The chemicals haven’t only been an issue near Marinette, though. PFAS have shown up in Milwaukee’s drinking water and in Oak Creek and Wilson Park Creek, which suggests they are also making their way into Lake Michigan. Likely sources of the contamination appear to be the use of firefighting foam at the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. 

In Madison, officials shut down a well early last year that had high levels of the chemical, and reports have shown that 14 of 23 wells in the city show some level of PFAS. Officials say the water is still safe to drink. The DNR has determined that one source of the contamination is the Dane County Regional Airport and the Truax Air National Guard base. 

Despite the rising number of issues with PFAS, there are still limited enforceable standards for the chemicals when they show up in water. In February, Gov. Tony Evers signed into law a bill that prohibits the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS unless its being used to fight an actual fire. Firefighters now must find a foam to practice with that does not contain the chemicals, or only practice in a facility that has a proper containment system for the PFAS. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@gannett.com and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.

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