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DNR Labels Rhinelander Airport As ‘Responsible Party’ In PFAS Contamination Of City Water

Ben Meyer/WXPR

The Wisconsin DNR is calling the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport a “responsible party” in the contamination of Rhinelander city water wells with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The DNR cited the airport’s storage and use of fire-fighting foam, which contains PFAS, in its determination.

Elevated levels of PFAS, which is linked to health risks like cancer, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol, were found in June in the city’s Well 7, which is located on airport property.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

“In terms of proximity to the wells and in terms of a known at least storage, and potentially past use, of these fire-fighting foams, [the airport] would be the most likely, or a likely, close-by source,” said Chris Saari, the DNR’s Northern Region Program Manager for the Remediation and Redevelopment Program.

Now, the DNR is ordering the airport to investigate the contamination, hire an environmental consultant, and submit reports.

“We want to see this be addressed as quickly as possible,” Saari said.

Rhinelander shut down Well 7 in June due to high PFAS levels.  In November, as PFAS levels in Well 8 rose, Mayor Chris Frederickson ordered its shutdown.  Both Well 7 and Well 8 are located on airport grounds.

Soon after Well 7 was shut down, the DNR opened an investigation and sent letters to about 20 nearby businesses and homes.  Saari said the airport’s response to the letter, which included information about fire-fighting foam, helped the agency identify it as a responsible party.

In a letter dated Dec. 9, the DNR directed the airport to take part in an 11-step plan to investigate the contamination.  That plan will be monitored and overseen by the DNR.

“We’re asking them to hire an environmental consultant and start doing some more historical research and submit a work plan to us to scope out an investigation of that area, to try and identify if they are a source or the source.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport.

Airport director Matthew Leitner said he’s been fully transparent and cooperative with the process and intends to keep doing so.

But he wasn’t expecting the airport to be blamed, given the information the DNR has.

“When they came back and said, ‘Well, we’ve identified you as a responsible party,’ yeah, it was surprising,” Leitner said.

Leitner is confused as to how the DNR drew its “responsible party” conclusion simply on evidence that fire-fighting foam is stored on the property.  He said he’s followed DNR recommendations and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates for testing and storing the foam.

“What we’ve been doing is what, again, they expect us to do.  As far as changing anything, I don’t know what we can change,” Leitner said.  “The containers don’t leak.  The truck doesn’t leak.  We don’t discharge it.  We’ve been adhering to all of the best practices as outlined.”

During an interview at the airport in September, Leitner explained the fire-fighting foam testing process, which the FAA requires airports to undertake annually.

“We don’t use it regularly.  We use it extremely sparingly.  We only used about two to four gallons per year, most of which goes into a bucket for mandated testing.  It’s not something that we play with.  It’s not something that we would ever play with.  It’s something that we would desperately need should its usage ever be warranted, but only under those circumstances would we use it,” he said.

Leitner said the foam has never been used in an incident.

As the first step in the process, the DNR is directing the airport to hire an environmental consultant by early January.


Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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