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Rhinelander hopeful for clean water funding after visit from Sen. Tammy Baldwin

Rhinelander recognized as being on the cutting-edge of researching PFAS contamination
Published: Sep. 1, 2021 at 6:19 PM CDT
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RHINELANDER, Wis. (WSAW) - Leaders and researchers in Rhinelander are hopeful to see federal funding opportunities that will assist them in addressing the problem of contaminated drinking water. That is after Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) toured and talked with them about some of the elements included in the federal infrastructure bill. The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support and is waiting to be voted on in the House.

Sen. Baldwin got a tour of one of two wells in Rhinelander that has been shut down due to Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. Rhinelander was one of the first municipalities in Wisconsin to discover the contamination and has been leading some of the research efforts as more municipalities around the state learn that they are impacted too.

PFAS is a man-made chemical that is often used in firefighting foam and products like Teflon. It is specifically designed to be water-resistant and not cling to surfaces, which means it easily can seep into certain types of soils and spread quickly for miles once in the groundwater. It is known as a “forever chemical” because it is something that does not naturally break down.

Elliot Draxler, a UW-Madison graduate student assisting in the research said currently, they are determining the basic geology and hydrology of the contaminated areas to better understand what type of soil is there and how the groundwater flows. He said they need to continue that research, but they are seeing that the groundwater is flowing into the Wisconsin River.

“Rhinelander is a pretty basic site,” Draxler explained. “It’s got a sandy gravel aquifer that houses the water and then an impermeable bedrock surface, so this model is probably the most basic hydrology that you could have.”

That means it is a good site to pilot and better understand the problem and find solutions because it can be applied to many other areas of the state that have the same issue. Draxler said they are also looking to other states working on solutions, as well as trying fixes too. Some states find ways to filter it as the water is going through the system, but then the soil ultimately needs to be contained and taken elsewhere. Draxler explained that one solution that is really promising is heating the soil to very high temperatures, which destroys the PFAS, however, there are also challenges and other impacts with that solution.

Sen. Baldwin recognized Rhinelander’s efforts as cutting-edge and took the initiative to connect the city with Environmental Protection Agency resources to ensure they have scientists on all levels working to come up with a plan to solve the issue.

“We want to be pioneers as we are the perfect petri dish, as the mayor always likes to refer to Rhinelander as, and so we’re really excited about that opportunity to work with anybody that’s willing to advance the research, technology, and the knowledge surrounding PFAS,” City Administrator, Zach Vruwink said.

James Yach, the Department of Natural Resources’ director for northern Wisconsin said PFAS is what is called an emerging contaminate, which means it is a newly discovered groundwater contaminate. So, they are learning as they go about where it comes from, how it moves and interacts, and what impacts it has on the environment and humans. He said they are also still investigating where it is all located throughout the state and he expects more municipalities, especially those with industrial areas, to have contamination too.

One of the big issues with an emerging contaminate is that there is not a lot that is known about the full costs of learning about and ultimately solving the problem. The costs that are known, are expensive and out of reach for municipalities with smaller tax bases.

“Additional treatment at wells 7 and 8 is a multimillion-dollar proposition and a new well in an area where there’s not PFAS in the groundwater is also above a million-dollar proposition,” Sen. Baldwin acknowledged.

She laid out some of the funding opportunities municipalities would have should the federal infrastructure bill pass the House and be signed into law. It includes billions of dollars of grant money that addresses other water contamination elements as well, including the replacement of lead pipes.

“Clean and safe drinking water is paramount for economic development and growth,” Vruwink urged. “And we’ve got industry here in Rhinelander that’s on the cusp of growing, but only if they have (an) adequate supply of clean and safe drinking water.”

Sen. Baldwin noted that funding from the bill would provide the opportunity for new clean-water-based jobs to come to the area too. She was confident Rhinelander would be very qualified for the various federal assistance if and when it becomes available.

Sen. Baldwin also visited Eagle River to talk about the need for federal aid for the timber industry. She said between the impacts of Chinese tariffs and the pandemic, many businesses have been closed or threatened to close. She stated other agricultural industries have received assistance after various economic challenges and with the timber industry supporting much of Wisconsin’s economy, especially in the northern region, not supporting the industry would be devastating to the state.

“It will not hold them harmless from the harm that’s been caused by these various economic challenges, but it will hopefully keep some in business that are teetering on the edge,” she admitted.

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