DNR to conduct new round of testing for ‘forever chemicals’ in Peshtigo wells after firefighting foam producer refuses

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is testing a new set of drinking water wells in the area surrounding a firefighting testing facility in Marinette for chemical contamination. 

The DNR began sending out 558 packets of information to Peshtigo residents last week about a new round of well testing, said Darsi Foss, the administrator of the environmental management division for the DNR. Only potable wells will be sampled, which means that the water drawn from them is used for cooking or drinking, according to DNR documents

The testing will cost up to $900,000, Foss said. That figure includes surveying where wells are and if they’re used for drinking water, coordinating site access to take samples, sampling, data analysis, lab costs, data reporting and possibly temporary water for wells that are impacted by PFAS. 

Additional wells may be discovered and sampled as the testing goes on if they are discovered to be in an area of contamination, Foss said. 

The tests will sample for 36 PFAS compounds. PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” are a family of man-made chemicals used for their water- and stain-resistant qualities in products such as clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam. The chemicals are persistent, remaining both in the environment and human body over time. Accumulation of the chemicals in the body can cause cancer, studies have suggested, or cause other adverse health effects.

The testing is being done in an attempt to see how far PFAS contamination has reached in the city that borders Marinette. Legacy contamination has been an issue there because of the Tyco Fire Products plant, where firefighting foams containing PFAS are mixed and tested on-site.

The area labeled in blue shows the area being tested starting October 2020. The DNR will pay for the testing after refusal by JCI/Tyco.

Tyco, a subsidiary of Johnson Controls, began testing the firefighting foams on fires in 1962. The testing was conducted outdoors until public scrutiny regarding PFAS in drinking water in the surrounding communities pushed the company to move testing indoors in 2017. Now, the company captures the foam and it is taken out of state for disposal, instead of flushing the foam into the sewer system. 

Foss said that the DNR originally asked JCI/Tyco to do the Peshtigo testing, but the company declined to do so, saying that the area could have been contaminated by another source. 

“We’re not aware of another source other than the firefighting foam testing facility,” she said. 

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But Fraser Engerman, Johnson Controls director of global media relations, said the company has submitted a 1,000-page report that shows the PFAS can’t have originated at the Marinette plant. 

“This data and analysis show that the chemical makeup of PFAS in the Southern Area does not match our firefighting compounds,” he wrote in an email Thursday.  

The Southern Area is where the new round of testing will be conducted, south and east of the JCI/Tyco facilities and the areas with wells that have already been tested by the company. 

The company has been under pressure for years regarding its use of PFAS and the ongoing cleanup in both Marinette and Peshtigo, where residents are concerned about the impact of the pollution on their quality of life. 

Doug Oitzinger, an alderman and former mayor of Marinette who has been working since 2017 as a part of the advocacy group Save Our Water, said that he’s heard from Peshtigo residents who are worried about their water quality and have spent $500 to $600 to have their wells tested before the DNR made its announcement. 

“People are nervous, they’re afraid,” he said. 

He said Tyco’s denial that the contamination didn’t come from its fire products plant is frustrating, not just to him, but everyone impacted by the chemicals in their water supply. 

“I’m just saying the idea that there isn’t any possibility that this came from Tyco is nonsense,” he said. “That sort of absolutism is nonsense.” 

Tyco has already been providing bottled drinking water to more than 100 homes in the Marinette and Peshtigo areas to keep residents safe from the chemicals that have leeched into wells from the facility. 

Bottled water is not yet being given to residents in the current testing area, Foss said. If results for a well come back above 20 parts per trillion, the standard that the DNR currently uses for a limit of PFAS in drinking water, bottled water will be provided. 

Foss said that the new study could help the DNR learn more about how PFAS travel through the environment. So much is still unknown about the chemicals, she said, and they’re still being researched worldwide. 

Depending on the results of the testing, Foss said Peshtigo could require a system to filter PFAS from the water system, or it could require that deeper wells be dug to access groundwater that hasn’t been contaminated. A drinking water system has already been proposed for the City of Marinette’s drinking water supply, and JCI/Tyco is working out plans for it. 

Foss said Peshtigo residents within the second plume of testing should be on the lookout for the packet to arrive in the mail, fill out the forms immediately and send them back to the DNR. Testing will be done outdoors at each residence, she said, and social distancing will be maintained to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She urged all who receive the packet to sign up for testing so there’s more data available to analyze. 

For more information about the testing or PFAS in the Marinette and Peshtigo areas, visit dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Contaminants/Marinette.html

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