A Marinette-based company known for mixing and testing firefighting foams is once again under pressure from the state to test more drinking wells for “forever chemicals.”
Tyco Fire Protection Products, a subsidiary of Johnson Controls, was issued a letter of noncompliance by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on May 27, after stating it would not test additional wells in the Marinette area for traces of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.
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.
Johnson Controls was directed by the DNR in February to submit an investigation schedule of the expanded testing area by March 2 or be deemed non-compliant, according to DNR documents.
The company did not submit a plan, and in a June 1 letter, a company official denied contamination in the additional wells to the south of its testing facility originated from its operations.
“It is particularly disappointing that you have seemingly made no effort to identify the parties that are actually responsible for this contamination, despite the fact that there are clearly other parties who have contributed to the problem,” wrote John Perkins, the vice president of global environmental, health and safety.
Perkins also states in the letter that the company has submitted the documents the DNR is seeking, as a part of other work plans, and that the company has shown the chemicals found in the expanded area are not the same makeup as the chemicals that originate at the facility.
The DNR does not agree with that response, though. In a second letter from May 27, hydrogeologist David Neste refutes the company’s claim. The letter states the company’s information may be incomplete, and needs to also include air transport evaluations, as well.
“The degree and extent of contamination identified at the site has not been adequately characterized or documented,” Neste said in the letter.
Perkins challenged that contention. He said in an interview Friday that Johnson Controls has previously submitted data and documents showing the expanded area is not contaminated by the foam testing facility, but some other source, such as paper mills or even consumer items, such as microwave popcorn bags thrown into the landfill.
“The DNR is aware that PFAS can come from different sources, but they’re not looking for other sources,” he said.
Perkins said that based on studies the company has done, the PFAS are traveling exclusively by groundwater and that the southern portion of the study area is isolated from the groundwater the company is already working to protect. At this point, he said, it’s the DNR’s job to find out where the contamination is coming from, instead of pinning the issue on the foam testing facility.
“They should follow their own law, in which they have the responsibility to identify additional sources of contamination,” he said.
Perkins also reinforced the company’s commitment to the community for the PFAS that originated at the facility, which has included setting aside $140 million to help fund cleanup.
“We stand behind our commitment to the community,” he said.
A DNR official who handles information regarding PFAS did not respond to a request for an interview Friday.
The PFAS contamination in Marinette is the most widely known in Wisconsin.
Tyco Fire Products started testing firefighting foam with perfluorinated chemicals at the training center in Marinette in 1962 and continued the practice until late 2017 when testing was moved indoors, where the chemicals could be captured and transported to a different site for disposal.
This isn’t the first time the DNR has deemed the company non-compliant.
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 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 Services told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in April that a cancer cluster assessment is underway in the Marinette and Peshtigo areas, and that a team is working to analyze the data. The assessment was started after residents reported their stories of having cancer and other serious illnesses at a public meeting in December.
In response to the existing contamination, the company has been providing bottled drinking water to over 100 houses in the Marinette and Peshtigo areas and has installed filtration systems in some homes. Most recently, the company started to supply drinking water to users of three additional wells, which were contaminated with PFAS after being fertilized with biosolids from the water treatment plant that contained the chemicals.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.
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