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Wausau metro area communities forming plans to test for PFAS

Published: Feb. 25, 2022 at 7:48 PM CST
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KRONENWETTER, Wis. (WSAW) - Two months since Rib Mountain, two weeks since Wausau, and two days since Rothschild notified the public of elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, surrounding metro communities are formulating plans to test for PFAS as well.

Since the contaminates do not yet have a state or federal standard and testing is expensive, many municipalities have held off, unsure of what levels would mean or how to handle it. As some communities in Wisconsin began discovering levels of PFAS above the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion in 2019, the state has been focusing on addressing the issue and trying to understand the scope of the problem.

On Feb. 8, Gov. Tony Evers announced $600,000 in EPA funding would be available for municipalities to be able to test for the contaminates. Since then, municipalities have been more willing to find out, especially as communities nearby discover elevated levels beyond the state’s recommendation of 20 ppt. The state’s lower level is, in part, based on more recent studies finding health concerns in unborn children at that level.

Kronenwetter

The Village of Kronenwetter, which has a growing residential population and need for water, has been working on a water quality and capacity plan since 2014.

“We were in the process of finding new wells, doing some other projects, and as part of that, we were going to do a treatment plant,” Richard Downey, village administrator said. “So, prior to putting the treatment plant in, we wanted to see, OK what does the treatment plant have to treat for?”

One of its two wells has high levels of iron and manganese. The naturally-occurring elements do not reach EPA levels of health concern, but they are above the aesthetic levels the EPA set. Downey said around 2014, the DNR notified the village that it was getting a lot of reports from residents about the cloudy water and began working with the village on ways to address it in the short and long term.

For a period of time, it shut down one well and would alternate the well use each day, however, it was having capacity-related issues. So, the village began mixing the water between the two to dilute the levels. It also was working on determining whether it could dig a new well.

“You have to find both quality and quantity,” Downey explained.

The two existing wells are about 200 feet apart from each other, so the village looked outside of that area.

“We did not find a good one that wouldn’t have to be treated.”

For the past several years, the village has been working with Rothschild to come to an agreement to purchase its water since Rothschild has a treatment facility. The public service commission gave the approval this week for the village to begin construction of a meter and connection between the two municipalities. Depending upon supply-chain disturbances, the construction could be completed as soon as June. Downey said the village was able to allocate American Rescue Plan Act dollars to cover that project, so residents will not see an increase in their utility costs due to that project.

This week, Rothschild learned it has some elevated levels of PFAS, causing it to shut down one of its wells and begin a mitigation strategy, specifically mixing its water supply from its wells with lower contamination to get under the state’s recommended limit. Rothschild’s administrator, Gary Olsen told NewsChannel 7 it took new samples after implementing the mitigation strategy and sent it to the lab to ensure what they were doing was working as intended. He said he is confident and is not concerned about the levels as they share with Kronenwetter either.

“He walked me through what their process was to address their PFAS numbers and they’re using engineers and they have an engineer on staff and they’re taking very good steps to address that,” Downey added.

As that agreement and plan have been worked out to purchase water, Kronenwetter has also been working on plans to ultimately build a water treatment facility. It is currently in the design phase. As Downey mentioned earlier, they were planning to test the water to understand what other contaminates this facility would have to address.

The utility committee met on Feb. 1, ahead of the governor’s announced funding, and discussed PFAS, mentioning Rib Mountain’s findings. While one member wanted to test as soon as possible, the rest of the committee had concerns about public perception, lack of understanding how to handle that problem especially if both of their wells came back with elevated levels, and cost concerns. Downey said he and their department of public works administrator at the time encouraged testing ahead of that meeting, but the committee ultimately voted to gain more guidance and information.

“Originally, we thought we were going to have to pay for it. It was going to be $3,300,” Downey stated. “That’s, in the water utility, it’s not that much money but at the same time, it’s still money so they wanted to be careful with that and they wanted to make sure there was a standard.”

The utility committee is meeting Tuesday evening, with testing on the agenda. The full council will meet the following week. Downey said while the democratic process can take some time, he anticipates that with the state funding for testing becoming available that the village will be testing soon.

Mosinee

Mosinee’s director of public works, Kevin Breit, said they have been in contact with the state and are interested in applying for the testing funds, though it still has to go through the city’s government approval first. He stated there will be training for it at the beginning of March, with testing anticipated in April.

The city has six wells. Breit said he is confident that they would be able to easily address PFAS contamination if levels are found because it has a treatment plant equipped to filter it out. It has a granulated carbon filter that was put into the facility to address the city’s elevated levels of iron and manganese; that process is also known to filter out PFAS.

Currently, the wells on the west side of the city already go through the treatment facility, so if elevated PFAS levels are found on the east side, Breit said they would run that water through the treatment facility as well.

The next public works committee meeting is March 14.

Schofield

Schofield was selected to be part of the EPA’s random testing for PFAS, the same program which led to Rhinelander’s discovery of its elevated levels in 2019. Public Works Administrator Mark Thuot said that testing will occur in May 2023.

He said given the availability of state testing funds and the discoveries in surrounding communities, he plans to speak with the city council to find out if they would like to test sooner. The water and sewer commission has its next regularly scheduled meeting in March.

Weston

Weston was the only municipality in the metro area, outside of Wausau, to have tested for PFAS previously. In 2014 and 2015 the village participated in the EPA’s unregulated contaminates monitoring rule. The EPA labeled the levels found as “non-detectable.” There was some detected in each well, but they were in small amounts and below the levels the EPA recommended at that time.

Josh Swenson, the village’s utility superintendent said they will be doing two rounds of testing of the villages wells through the DNR’s voluntary PFAS sampling project and by sending their own samples to the lab in the next couple of weeks.

State standardizing process

Wednesday, the Natural Resources Board voted on setting PFAS standards for Wisconsin. A groundwater standard was scrapped. The surface water standard was adopted without any changes.

The drinking water standard was raised to 70 ppt due to half of the board members’ disbelief in what the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Health Services presented, with concerns that industry groups would challenge the standard in court and delay the process (which was already happening prior to the vote on the standards). Since most of the concern was related to the economic impact analysis, the DNR confirmed with NewsChannel 7 that the health recommendation remains at 20 ppt, despite the change in the standard level. All of the approved standards will move on to the governor and legislature for review.

Private well owners

Private well owners are responsible for testing their own well. Click here for more information about how to do that.

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