The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is seeking to lower outputs of arsenic and mercury into the Menominee River through new permits for wastewater discharge at a plant that mixes firefighting foam in Marinette.
The announcement of the new permit came days before the administrator of the Enivornmental Protection Agency visited Marinette to deem the Lower Menominee River as fully remediated and once again supporting a healthy population of fish, birds and vegetation.
Though the announcements came on the heels of each other, the river being taken off the “area of concern” list is unrelated to the new permit. Permits generally last about five years and Johnson Controls was due for a new one, said Jason Knutson, an environmental engineer for the DNR.
The department is working with Johnson Controls, which operates a Tyco Fire Products unit in Marinette, to draft a new permit that reduces the amount of arsenic going into the river and imposing limits on PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” for the first time ever, according to a release.
Tyco 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.
Currently, the Johnson Controls facility at 1 Staton Street in Marinette has two outfalls that discharge water into the Menominee River, the release said. The first releases wastewater that’s already been treated, wastewater used in the manufacturing of fire protection products and storm water runoff from the roofs. That outfall, the release said, is also prone to infiltration of contaminated groundwater beneath the production facility, which comes to the surface without any sort of treatment.
At the second outfall, contaminated groundwater is pumped from beneath the site and treated before it’s released.
The permit, which is still in the drafting phase, would require several actions by the company to minimize arsenic and PFAS:
- Upgrade the existing groundwater treatment system, to ensure the best quality of the water being discharged.
- Abandon the outfall that causes untreated groundwater to flow into the river.
- Divert treated wastewater and treated groundwater into a single outfall.
- Divert water coming from boilers and cooling systems to the City of Marinette sanitary sewer system.
- Divert roof runoff to another sewer, to avoid arsenic contamination.
Those actions, according to the news release, will prevent any sort of release of untreated water into the Menominee River.
The final requirement for the company will be to install treatment that will reduce the amount of PFAS released in water to 11 parts per trillion, which is the standard set by the State of Michigan. The Menominee River is bordered by both Michigan and Wisconsin, and both have been involved in remediating and setting limits for it.
PFAS are called “forever chemicals” due to their inability to break down in the environment but were widely used until recently in consumer products because of their ability to repel oil and water. PFAS were commonly found in stain-resistant fabric, nonstick cookware and firefighting foam.
Fraser Engerman, the director of global media relations for Johnson Controls, said the company was already working to update its wastewater system with many of the steps required by the new permit to reduce the output of the toxins.
“Two years ago, we proposed to WDNR $20 million in technological upgrades we wanted to put in place at this facility, many of which are now reflected in the WDNR’s updated draft permit,” he said. “Those upgrades are now underway, and we expect them to be completed within three years. We will continue to protect the people of Marinette and take steps to ensure that residents have safe water.”
The permit also follows on the heels of a spill that caused groundwater contaminated with arsenic and PFAS to run into the river in July. Engerman said that the spill was small and found shortly after it happened. The contaminated water that didn’t already flow into the river was collected and taken off-site for disposal. The clean up has since ended for that spill.
The DNR will host a listening session Sept. 24 to allow the public to give its feedback on the permit virtually. After that, Knutson said, that the permit will likely go into effect on Dec. 1, giving Johnson Controls deadlines and schedules for the new equipment to be installed.
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.