Sen. Baldwin visits Wausau to highlight $3.3M for PFAS remediation in Wausau and Rib Mountain

Published: Jan. 13, 2023 at 7:43 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Friday, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin joined city officials from Wausau and Rib Mountain to tour the new Wausau Water Treatment Plant. She also highlighted the over $3.3 million in federal funding Sen. Baldwin secured for PFAS remediation for the City of Wausau and the Rib Mountain Sanitary District.

At the Wausau Water Treatment Plant, Sen. Baldwin learned how the plant is filtering out harmful contaminants from the city’s drinking water. At a press conference, she also discussed the installation of PFAS remediation technology using $1.6 million in federal funding which she secured for both the City of Wausau and the Rib Mountain Sanitary District.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Baldwin worked with communities across Wisconsin, including Wausau and Rib Mountain, to secure investment in local projects in the final passage of the Fiscal Year 23 Omnibus Appropriations bill. The funding will help the municipalities investigate, assess, and implement PFAS treatment.

“We’re so grateful for Senator Baldwin’s steadfast support and advocacy for every resident in the City of Wausau. The funding through this congressionally directed spending language will help the utility pay for a permanent solution to PFAS contamination in Wausau’s wells,” said Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg. “We know that granular activated carbon systems are both reliable and long-lasting, so it will remove PFAS and other emerging contaminants for decades to come.”

“We all have had some sleepless nights in Rib Mountain regarding the PFAS issues, but the funding Senator Baldwin secured will allow us all to sleep a little more easily,” said Fred Schaefer, Rib Mountain supervisor.

Addressing PFAS contamination is costly, especially for small municipalities. Rib Mountain’s municipal wells serve about 6,000 customers, so while rates and levies were raised to address some of the costs, that federal assistance allows the town to not have to make the small number of residents and businesses pay for the full amount.

“When communities come to me and make their case, I recognize that every federal dollar we can put in is a reduction on the rates the ratepayers will be paying,” Sen. Baldwin said.

Wausau leaders say they have been receiving criticism about the 65%, or roughly $20 rate increase due to the costs of the new water treatment facility. Eric Lindman, the public works director said he has been receiving questions about why they are raising rates even with all of the government grants. He explained the public service commission receives the dollars and sets the rates. Currently, those grant dollars are being used to address the utility’s needs for the treatment plant, but the grants can help mitigate future rates for customers.

“We look at our revenues versus our water usage versus, you know, what are we generating? What are our operational costs? And then we determine if we should be looking at a rate case again, or if we should be, you know, doing something different based on our expenses versus revenue.”

As for why the city decided to build a new facility instead of renovating the old one, there are several reasons.

“It was based on regulation,” Lindman said. “It was based on what were we were predicting was coming out with the information that our regulatory authorities were talking about, but it was also able to provide and improve water quality for the residents, you know. And also set the city up for, you know, the next decades, right, 70 plus years.”

In 2016, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources set a deadline to address certain concerns with the original treatment plant for Dec. 31, 2022. The renovations would have cost about $10 million less than a new facility, but they would likely be addressing other issues in a few years and spending about the same amount later.

The original treatment plant was built in 1961. It was on a 500-year floodplain and had certain quality issues that were more difficult to address. Lindman said the new facility allows them not only to get the water cleaner but offers more flexibility to address emerging contaminates decades from now.

A tour of the treatment plant

Sen. Tammy Baldwin joined city leaders in the tour after working to get federal funds to help with the project

The first set of treatment steps begins just outside of the plant. Wells 3 and 6 are located on the super fund site due to having volatile organic compounds from past industrial use. So, the water from those wells gets pretreated by going through an air stripper, essentially an aerator, bubbling the VOC out into the atmosphere before entering the plant.

When it and other wells’ water enter the plant, a coagulant is added as it enters to pull bigger particles like iron and manganese together so they settle to the bottom in large tanks. Under the water, large paddles turn the water to ensure the coagulant is mixing and forming the large particles. The water travels from one cell tank to the next. Lights shining into the water show the water becoming clearer as it goes along.

The next step is for the water to go through the clarifiers. The water flows up and over a grating system or weirs allowing the heavy particles to remain on the bottom while the clearer water flows over into the next step in the process. That is where the water begins to go through its first filters. Lindman said media like green sand and anthracite take care of the rest of the soluble manganese and organic compounds like tannins from tree roots. He explained the old plant had difficulties removing those organic compounds, which made disinfection difficult and gave a brown tint to the water.

“When we lower those organics, we get better, safer water in the distribution system.”

The water throughout the system is tested daily to ensure the contaminate levels are optimal or non-detectable; Lindman says they have been meeting or exceeding their goals. The whole plant can be automated through a computer system to manage chemical levels, and adjust the number of tanks running with the ebb and flow of usage.

Wausau’s raw water, like many other surrounding municipalities, has high levels of iron and manganese above recommended health limits.

“It really creates problems in our distribution system because they’ll settle out in the distribution system. It creates issues with our disinfection. It creates problems with our corrosion control out in the system,” Lindman explained. “And so, the lower we can get those levels, one, the better water quality individuals have, but you know, it makes it a lot easier to address and not have the issues in the distribution system.”

He said they are able to remove upwards of 99% of the iron and manganese with the new facility.

“It was really interesting because what I did was the water that we had from the old treatment facility, when we put this facility online, I had a (white) bucket filled with water from the (the old facility) and once I knew the (new facility’s) water was coming to my home a few days later, you could see it. It was much more clear.”

The water then flows down into the anion exchange system, which takes out the PFAS and other contaminants. However, because it takes out so many other contaminants the $800,000 system will need to be replaced next year. It is why a more efficient granular activated carbon system will be added in 18-24 months once the funding is released to move forward.

Both the anion exchange and GAC system function better the cleaner the water is, which Lindman said will allow them to address emerging contaminates in the future.

“I mean, the clarity is there and the quality is there. So hopefully, the residents can see that too.”

The new facility also provides space for the utility to perform pilot testing. Soon it will begin testing corrosion-inhibiting methods on lead pipes with the new water chemistry using different chemicals to determine which method will best protect the pipes from leaching lead.

As for the waste that comes from what is filtered out of the water, Lindman said while there is some guidance there is no set standard as it relates to PFAS yet. Scientists are looking at whether it can be recycled, incinerated, or need to be taken to a hazardous waste site.