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DNR: Initial new well installations look to be successful in treating PFAS contamination in Stella

Katie Thoresen

The Wisconsin DNR says it’s seeing success with new wells and water treatment in the Town of Stella in Oneida County.

Private wells in the area have some of the highest levels of PFAS in drinking water in the country with combined PFOA and PFOS levels exceeding 35,000 parts per trillion [ppt].

The Oneida County Health Department hosted a meeting Wednesday night at James Williams Middle School in Rhinelander. Representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and Department of Natural Resources gave updates to the PFAS situation in Stella and answered questions from the audience.

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PFAS and health risks

PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals that have been used in products since the 1940s. There are thousands of different PFAS. The two most widely used and studied are PFOA and PFOS.

They are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they break down very slowly and can build up in humans, wildlife, and the environment over time.

PFAS have been used in a range of products, typically ones that are meant to be waterproof or non-stick like food packaging, non-stick cookware, and raingear.

Research into the chemicals’ impact on human health is ongoing.

According to the EPA, current peer-reviewed studies have shown that exposure to PFAS can, in some cases, lead to:

  • Decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women
  • Developmental effects or delays in children
  • Increased risk for some cancers
  • Reduced vaccine response
  • Increased cholesterol levels

Expanding the testing zone

As of March 28, 2024, 134 private wells within 2.5 miles of the Stella Town Hall have been tested for PFAS. Of those wells, 56 have PFAS levels above the DHS recommended level of 20 ppt. 37 have at least a trace of PFAS chemicals. 41 had no detectable levels.

Katie Thoresen
People look at the map of the expanded testing zone round Stella Town Hall.

Currently, homes in the area with levels above the DHS safe drinking water level are eligible to receive clean bottled water and get assistance through the state’s well compensation program.

The DHS health standard is still 20 ppt. The DNR has requested DHS to evaluate the EPA rule of no more than 4 ppt in public drinking water sources. The agency is currently going through that process.

“I don't think we have a timeline at this point. The trigger for getting bottled water is if DHS or the drinking water program issues a health advisory for your well and then my program has authority to provide bottled water, so that is on our radar and it's in the works,” said Director for the DNR’s Remediation and Redevelopment Program Christine Sieger.

The DNR also announced it would be expanding the testing zone to three miles around the Stella Town Hall.

It will offer free PFAS testing to approximately 125 well owners. Residents should be receiving letters in the mail. They will be done in stages so as not to overwhelm testing facilities. If you don’t receive a letter by June 30th, 2024, but believe you should have been included you can contact the DNR at that time.

New wells and treatment systems

The DNR is hopeful that drilling new wells to certain specifications and, in some cases, combining them with treatment systems will eliminate or reduce PFAS levels to safe drinking water standards.

Money has been granted for 19 well replacements and three treatment systems.

To date, six projects have completed work, 16 projects are active, and three are under review.

Through testing, the DNR has found that about 70% of wells that tested for elevated levels of PFAS were drawing water from the sandy gravel aquifer.

“That data showed us that it looks like we were going to have a pretty good shot at being able to drill new wells and at least potentially reduce, if not totally eliminate, PFAS,” said Mark Pauli with DNR’s Drinking Water and Groundwater program.

This is an expensive process.

A two-year $10 million program using American Restoration Plan Act money helped pay for some of the work. At the meeting, Pauli said the amount that was allotted for that specific program has been expended.

There is still the state’s well compensation program, but it does have income eligibility requirements that would disqualify some residents.

Pauli says they are seeing success with the new wells.

One home had combined PFAS levels of 14,400 ppt. The new well is showing no PFAS detection.

Another home had a combined concentration of 37,000 ppt. The new well brought the levels to 2,500 ppt. Then two granulated activated canister treatment systems were put in series and further reduced levels to 2.7 ppt.

“The first initial well installations indicate that this approach is going to be successful,” said Pauli.

The new wells will have to be tested regularly to see if PFAS chemicals move in over time.

No responsible party identified yet

The DNR is still searching for the party or parties that could be held responsible for the PFAS contamination.

As WXPR previously reported, testing of current waste from the Rhinelander papermill does not show levels of PFAS that would cause these levels.

The DNR is looking into past sludge spreading in the area. Sieger said her office sent letters to Ahlstrom, the current Rhinelander papermill owners, and four Wausau Paper related entities.

The letters state the DNR has reason to believe they have land spread material in the Stella. The letter has a list of questions for the companies that range from ‘Was PFAS used in your processes?’ to ‘Tell us where you put your waste’.

“There's more to it than that, but that's kind of the gist of it,” said Sieger. “These are letters that we send routinely to people when we want more information, to know whether or not we need to start having a conversation with someone about taking some actions. We have not named a responsible party at this time.”

The DNR has also started the years-long process of making the area a superfund site.

Sieger says they’ve just taken the first step. They can decide at any time not to move forward with it.

She says the benefit of the federal program is it can potentially open more funding, but it is a minimum three-to-four-year process.

“Most of the sites, as I said, proceed under state authority. They're investigated, they're cleaned up, they go on to a new use under the state spill law,” said Sieger. “But there are times when there are situations that might be beyond the state's financial ability, beyond our overall capacity, particularly when drinking water is involved. We wanted to make sure that we were keeping our options open on your behalf.”

Sieger also addressed some concerns local farmers may have about who is responsible for contamination.

“The governor's office has agreed that DNR, and I should note that we have not to date, but we will not, we do not intend to pursue farmers who own agricultural land, or respond to actions, that's a fancy way of saying site investigation and cleanup, or costs related to unintentional PFAS contamination resulting from permitted land spreading,” said Sieger. “I think that this is really good news. It's good news for farmers and it makes good sense.”

Governor Evers recently vetoed a bill that would have made available $125 million in funds dedicated to PFAS testing and treatment.

Republican lawmakers said landowners shouldn’t be on the hook for clean up if they unknowingly allowed land spreading that had PFAS.

Evers said the bill would limit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ authority to hold polluters liable.

Lakes, rivers, and wildlife

The Department of Health Services is encouraging people to be conscious of their recreation habitats on lakes and rivers that have PFAS contamination.

As WXPR previously reported, several water bodies in Stella and the surrounding areas have elevated levels of PFOA concentrations.

It had led to elevated levels in fish in the waterbodies. The DNR and DHS have issued fish consumption advisories for much of the Moen Chain of Lakes.

A map showing PFOA levels in waterbodies near Stella in eastern Oneida County. The levels outlined in orange are above the state's surface water standards.
Katie Thoresen
A map showing PFOA levels in waterbodies near Stella in eastern Oneida County. The levels outlined in orange are above the state's surface water standards.

DNR Water Quality Program Research Scientist Patrick Gorski says there are no plans at this time to retest lakes or rivers to see if the PFAS levels have changed over time. There are plans to test more waterbodies in the area, mostly to the north of the Moen Chain.

“We're going to hit all the major creeks and streams up in there, see if that's coming down towards this area, or if there's anything out there,” said Gorski.

DHS Site Evaluation Program Coordinator Nathan Kloczko talked people through some of the health risks of recreating in water bodies with elevated levels of PFAS.

The concern comes down to ingested water. PFAS does not enter the body through skin.

DHS tried to calculate the impact on people equivalent to drinking PFAS contaminated water.

It found that on the high end of a person consuming water while doing various activities in the lakes that have PFOA levels like those found in the Moen Chain it’s about the equivalent of drinking from a water source that has PFAS levels just over the DHS recommended level of 20 ppt over the course of a year.

“This was assuming people were out there a lot and consuming a lot of water accidentally, for most of these chains,” said Kloczko.

Kloczko told people higher risk activities include swimming or things like waterskiing or tubing where you might wipe out and accidentally take in water.

Conversely, things like boating are lower risk.

“We are not saying that you should stop recreating, that you should stop swimming in these waters. That is not the takeaway here. Swimming is an excellent source of exercise that has a whole lot of health benefits to it. And being in and around water is very much a stress reducing activity,” said Kloczko. “We want to encourage that to the best that we can. We want to give you the information so that you can do things safely.”

People should also be rinsing off and washing their hands after spending time in the lakes.

Kloczko noted that’s a good rule of thumb for all lakes, and it helps reduce other potential health risks like bacteria and swimmer’s itch.

Potential contamination in deer is also on the DNR’s radar, though there are no current plans for sampling.

DNR environmental toxicologist Sean Strom said any hunters that harvest deer in the area that would be willing to donate some venison and liver for testing should get in contact with him: Sean.Strom@wisconsin.gov.

‘A long slog’

During the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, one person asked how long it would take for the PFAS to leave fish once the lakes are no longer contaminated.

The answer to that question is about two to three years, according to Strom.

“Fish do respond fairly quickly to cleaned up water,” he said.

But the DNR used that question to stress that there will be no quick fix to the PFAS contamination.

The top priority is making sure people have clean drinking water.

Cleaning up the source of contamination, which is still being investigated, will take a long time. So long, none of the DNR staff gave a timeframe.

“This is going to be a long slog. If we end up with a responsible party, it's going to be a long site investigation. PFAS is something that the cleanup world didn't really know about 10 years ago, and it's incredibly difficult to deal with once it's in the environment,” said Sieger.

She ended the meeting trying to reassure people that the DNR is working hard on this issue.

“I wish that you could know us because of something other than contamination in the town of Stella. I want to assure you that we take this very seriously. You have no reason to believe me that that's true right now, but we work on this every day,” said Sieger.




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