Private well testing in eastern Oneida County reveals extreme levels of PFAS contamination
About six months ago, Kristen Hanneman received a piece of mail asking if she wanted her well water tested for PFAS.
She lives in the Town of Starks, which is about 10 miles east of Rhinelander.
She was selected as one of 450 throughout the state as part of a random sampling effort by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Department of Health Services and the Department of Natural Resources.
Hanneman signed up and researchers came up for testing.
“They called me three weeks later to say you have elevated levels,” she said.
Hanneman says the concentration of PFOS and PFOA in her well tested at 15,000 parts per trillion (ppt). It’s a level hundreds of times higher than safe drinking water standards. A second test through Northern Lake Service confirmed the numbers.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been linked to adverse health effects like high cholesterol, infertility, and lower immune response to vaccines.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has its PFAS limit for what it considers safe to drink and cook with at a combined 20 ppt for PFOS and PFOA, the two best-known PFAS variants.
The Wisconsin DNR’s drinking water standard is 70 ppt.
For some perspective, when the City of Rhinelander shut down the first of two wells over PFAS concerns in 2019, that well had peaked at 105 ppt of combined PFOS and PFOA. Its concentration of PFHxS, another PFAS variant, was 590 ppt.
“I was shocked. I guess I always attributed PFAS to being a city problem,” said Hanneman.
The high concentration of PFAS in Hanneman’s well prompted the DNR and DHS to collect more samples in the area.
Testing the town
They sent out more than 50 mailers with requests to test wells in Starks.
Twenty test results have come back.
Two south of town detected no PFAS.
Three tested positive, but below Wisconsin Health Guidelines. Fifteen tested positive well above that standard.
The DNR and DHS shared these findings at a packed Stella town meeting Tuesday night.
“We’ve had PFAS detected in a number of private wells throughout the state of Wisconsin, but just to give you an idea, out of those 450 equal areas, only three of them had PFAS in exceedance of the public health advisory and Starks is one of those,” said James Yach, DNR secretary's director for northern Wisconsin.
DNR and DHS staff talked people through what PFAS are, the associated health concerns, how to get their wells tested and what comes next.
But there were still a lot of questions.
And a lot don’t have answers at this time. Chief among them: where is the PFAS coming from?
“At this point, it’d be pure speculation,” said Yach, answering one person’s question about a source for PFAS.
Unlike other areas of the state that have tested positive for high levels of PFAS, Starks doesn’t have any manufacturers that are making products with the chemicals.
There is no airport that would use heavy amounts of firefighting foam that contains the chemical.
And no landfill where that waste might collect.
What comes next
So what comes next for people who live in the area?
First of all, the DNR is encouraging people to get their wells tested.
The DNR will test wells for people who are within a boundary they’ve identified which is roughly a mile radius around where the initial wells have been testing positive in Starks.
If you live outside that boundary and still want your well tested, you can go through a water testing company, but that can cost anywhere from $300 to $500.
You can find a list of labs that do PFAS testing here.
DHS is encouraging people whose wells have tested positive over the safe limit to switch to bottled water for drinking and cooking.
They also encourage people who live in the area and don’t yet know the status of their well water to make the switch until test results come back.
With a family of five and the elevated levels at her house, Hanneman switched to bottled water right away.
“We probably go through $30 and $40 per week in cooking and providing water to our kids and to take to school, all that stuff. It’s become an expense that’s not really sustainable,” said Hanneman.
She’s also hoping the town will step up by opening up the town hall for people with affected water to come to collect some of the clean water there and by exhausting all other options to get clean water to people.
As for solutions to the PFAS contamination, options are fairly limited right now.
With these extremely high levels, it’s unlikely a filtration system will help.
There was some discussion about drilling new wells, but PFAS contamination was found both in shallow wells and those buried deep into the granite layer.
On top of that, both options would cost thousands of dollars.
The state does offer up to $16,000 in grants to help cover the costs of PFAS testing, treatment options, or well replacement.
But with no good solutions on the table right now, many people at the meeting were frustrated, to say the least.
“The results are inconsistent. Nobody has close to the same numbers. You guys don’t even have a source of trying to figure out where you’re going to start,” said one of the roughly 50 people in attendance at the town meeting.
While testing continues, the DNR has reached out to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for assistance on this issue.
It’s hoping with federal resources, they’ll be able to expand testing and potentially get help with identifying and cleaning up the source of PFAS.
In the meantime, the people of Starks are left waiting.
“This is going to be a long haul with the DNR,” said Hanneman.
WXPR has reached out to the Wisconsin DNR for more information about the situation in Starks.
We’ll continue to keep you updated as we learn more.