La Crosse mayor turned down DNR guidance to provide clean water to more residents with contaminated wells

The City of La Crosse turned down a state suggestion to provide water to all residents impacted by a “forever chemical” contamination, records show.   

Mayor Tim Kabat directed the city not to offer water to residents whose wells tested for PFAS below the recommended level of 20 parts per trillion, despite a recommendation from the Department of Natural Resources to do so, according to emails obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel through an open records request. 

Meanwhile, an environmental consultant hired by the city, John Storlie of the OS Group, said at least some of those residents should receive the bottled water. 

“For example results above 15 ppt and the standard is 20 ppt, we would round 15 to the nearest 10 (to 20), if less than 15, then no bottled water offer,” Storlie said in a November 2020 email.   

“Let’s stick to the plan that we have presented all along — if a well is 20 or greater then we provide water. If less than 20 we do not,” Kabat replied. 

Previous emails indicated that the city previously established a $100,000 fund to provide drinking water to homes with high levels of contamination, but adding homes with lower levels of contamination would raise the cost to $200,000 or $250,000.

A week's worth of empty five-gallon water bottles from Culligan sit by the door Wednesday, February 10, 2021 Wednesday, February 10, 2021 at Tim Hartley's home on French Island near the airport in La Crosse, Wis. The home has one of least 40 wells that provide drinking water for residents in the area that were found to be contaminated with PFAS that are above recommended standards.

That decision was upheld even when a concerned resident within the plume of contamination reached out to express worry over her 4-day-old child being in a home with PFAS-containing water in late February.

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“My test results are below the proposed recommended standard but I do have PFAS in my water,” the woman wrote. “I am emailing you both to request water for my home. I have been doing research and listening to your zoom calls and finding that infants shouldn’t drink any water with PFAS, as their bodies are much smaller. I am hoping you will honor my request.” 

Kabat personally denied the request. 

“We have followed the science and health recommendations in regards to how we have investigated the potential PFAs contamination, our testing program and in providing water to those properties that exceed the 20 parts per trillion.  At this time, we are not providing water for any tests that are below the recommended standards,” he wrote on Feb. 21. 

David Rozeboom, a supervisor for the remediation and redevelopment program at the DNR, who sent the original email encouraging the city to provide more people with water, said the message was sent with “an abundance of caution.”

He said resampling wells that are near the recommended standard is a common practice, as is providing bottled water until those homes get a second set of results. He was told that the city was conducting some resampling, but water was not provided.  

“Generally speaking, the DNR frequently recommends taking extra precautions, but because they are only recommendations they are not always followed,” he said in an email.

Contamination spread from airport

The PFAS on French Island are leaching into the private wells from the La Crosse Regional Airport, located on the northern portion of French Island which is north of La Crosse’s downtown. The southern portion of the island is home to the Town of Campbell — where hundreds of residents are now grappling with the news of the PFAS contamination.

The contamination can be traced to several plane crashes where PFAS- containing fire-fighting foam was used to put out fires, as well as routine yearly testing of foam by the airport. 

The chemicals were first detected on the island in 2014, during routine well testing by the Environmental Protection Agency in two city wells. The city immediately shut down the wells, though it was years before the DNR declared the city the responsible party and required testing of wells near the airport. 

The city has conducted testing in some areas of the town, testing more than 120 wells. Of those, 40 had levels over the recommended limit, and another 65 tested positive but under that level. The city is waiting on some results. 

Kabat said in an interview the city so far has spent nearly $500,000 on testing and providing water, dipping into the city’s rainy day fund to do so. It’s been hard to find the funds to continue paying for more, he said.

With the discovery of additional contamination, the city has reached out to the DNR for help with testing and providing water, because it isn’t clear if it all came from the airport. 

“We believe that the DNR should be taking the lead and working to identify other sources,” he said. 

‘We’re taking this seriously’

He wants the residents to know that the city isn’t trying to brush aside concerns. 

“Obviously it’s a serious issue and I can understand the fear and the anger that residents are experiencing,” he said. “Through that investigation last fall, we immediately provided water to households higher than the standards. We’re taking this seriously.” 

Residents within the contamination area are feeling frustrated with the knowledge more of their neighbors could have qualified for safe drinking water. 

“(They’re) sweeping us under the rug and ignoring hundreds of residents in need,” said Amanda Hartley, who lives within the contamination area. “If this city doesn’t begin caring for its people, all of the good ones will be gone.” 

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of man-made chemicals used for their water- and stain-resistant qualities in products like clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam. The family includes 5,000 compounds, which are persistent, remaining both in the environment and human body over time.  

The chemicals can have devastating effects. They’ve been linked to types of kidney and testicular cancers, lower birth weights, harm to immune and reproductive systems, altered hormone regulation and altered thyroid hormones. The chemicals enter the human body largely through drinking water.

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Meanwhile, according to the emails, other residents on the island are paying to have their own water tested or asking the city to expand the testing area to include more homes. The Town of Campbell Board asked the city in December and early March through formal letters to expand the testing to the whole island, but the city has declined. 

Kabat said the city is waiting to hear back from the DNR about expanded testing before making any announcements. 

Kabat also showed concern over public perception of the contamination, even years before the city began testing private wells on the island. In 2016, Kabat sent an email to some city employees stressing the importance of seeming like all employees were on the same page, because of media attention. 

“I was concerned about how the advisory would be portrayed since the Flint crisis has dominated discussions about water,” Kabat wrote. 

“When we went through the testing and found PFAS in 2014, we shut down the wells. We were doing everything at the time to protect health and safety,” he said. “Then the investigation in 2017 through last year showed the chemicals weren’t going away and they were moving through the ground water.”

Since then, the city has been working to do what it can to help people, he said. But there are still a lot of people blaming the city for the contamination, even though employees didn’t know the foam they were using contained harmful chemicals. 

But he understands the concern, he said. 

“I can’t think of anything more serious than drinking water supply,” he said. “It’s a grave concern for everyone involved. We want to get the sources of contamination identified and get safe water.” 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura