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PFAS contamination in Stella among highest in the country, the forever chemicals are now being found in nearby lakes

Katie Thoresen
People pack into the Stella Town Hall to get an update from the DNR on the PFAS situation. Nearly 50 private wells in the area have tested positive for PFAS well above the state health standard.

Robin and Dave Gorman found out this spring that the well on their property is contaminated with PFAS.

They were in the expanded group for testing in the Stella area of Oneida County. Their well came back with PFAS levels around 8,500 ppt.

The DNR has been providing them with waterto drink and cook with through Culligan. Robin says it was an adjustment at first.

“It’s been very handy. I hope they extend it longer because we don’t even know when we’re going to get our new well drilled so hopefully, they’ll extend that,” said Robin.

WXPR spoke with them after this week’s Stella Town Hall meeting with DNR.

That’s when the DNR told people its best recommendation at this point is installing a new well.

For people with PFAS levels more than 200 ppt the DNR said treatment wasn’t a good option.

The DNR recommends people in the Stella area with high levels of PFAS drill new wells deeper down into the granite layer.

Most, but not all, of the higher level PFAS contamination has been found in the shallower sand and gravel level aquifer.

“There could be several concerns about that type of well construction one is whether they will get adequate water from that fractured granite to supply their home. Another may be that the PFAS contamination might still be at that level in that granite aquifer. Maybe it's migrating through the sand and gravel aquifer to the cracks in the granite and find its way into that new construction well,” said Steve Elmore, the DNR’s Program Director for the Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater.

The hope is the wells in the granite layer won’t have PFAS contamination, but if they do, it’d be at a lower level that could successfully be treated.

The DNR is providing up to $16,000 for qualifying households for treatment or a new well under the ARPA Well Compensation program.

The DNR mentioned in Tuesday’s town hall meeting that it would try to work with people if quotes were coming in higher than that.

The Gorman’s say an initial estimate for their new well is around $23,000.

“Dave has done the grant, filled out everything. There’s an extension that we would possibly apply for. That’s being taken care of. He’s also talked to well drillers. They are saying that it either could be this winter or next year because they’re very busy,” said Robin Gorman.

The Gorman’s bought their house in 2005 and moved in full-time about 10 years ago.

At this point, there’s no knowing how long their well has had PFAS contamination. The testing for PFAS in the area only started last year.

While all of this is enough to upset anyone, what they found truly disheartening was learning during Tuesday’s meeting that the lake they live on, Snowden Lake, is also contaminated with PFAS.

“You live on a lake. You have all the toys to play on it. We have grandkids. Then you think about your property value. It’s very concerning,” said Robin.

Snowden Lake testing came back with PFOS Levels at 71.5 ppt and PFOA levels of 1,600 ppt.

Both are above the state standard. Current Wisconsin PFAS surface water standards are PFOS = 8.0 ng/L (ppt) and PFOA = 95 ng/L (ppt).

As the map indicates below, Snowden Lake has the highest levels of PFOS and PFOA in the Stella area, but there are several others that are above that standard.

Katie Thoresen
A map on display during the Stella Town Hall meeting shows PFAS test results for lakes, rivers, and streams, in the Stella area of Oneida County.

Department of Health Services staff told people at the Stella Town Hall meeting that things like swimming, water skiing, and eating fish from the lake are considered high-risk activities for potentially consuming the forever chemicals.

While the DNR is waiting on fish samples, DHS recommended limiting or stopping eating fish from the lake until they know more.

“We do water skiing and boating, and kids are playing. Now you find out this. It’s troubling,” said Robin.

While people who live in the Stella area consider their limited options, the Wisconsin DNR is continuing to look for potential sources.

The agency says its main priority is ensuring the health of people living there and that there aren’t any activities being done currently that are adding to the contamination.

As WXPR reported Tuesday, the DNR is waiting on PFAS test results from sludge from the Rhinelander Paper Mill.

It’s also put stipulations on permits for the mill and the City of Rhinelander to check for PFAS before they have permission to spread sludge on any of the agriculture fields.

But as the Gorman’s and many people at the town hall meeting pointed out, just because there isn’t PFAS in sludge now, doesn’t mean there hasn’t been in the past.

“We’re also hoping that they can find or pinpoint sources, where it’s coming from, and put a stop to it,” said Dave Gorman. “There’s been a lot of dumping going on in this area. There’s been a lot of agriculture and sewage dumping. All that stuff goes right into the ground.”

Of the 114 private wells that have been sampled for PFAS in the Stella area, 81 have come back with at least a trace of PFAS. 49 wells are above the state health recommendation of 20 parts per trillion.

Levels higher than 35,000 ppt have been found in some of those wells, according to Elmore.

“These levels are significant. It's some of the highest levels in the country that we've seen, and certainly, the highest we've seen in groundwater and drinking water in Wisconsin,” said Elmore.

The DNR does not currently have any specific plans for further well testing.

The agency says any further testing will likely be targeted to areas they believe have a higher likelihood of testing positive.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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