Gary Laguna’s keyring jingles often as he sorts through the right key to the right door.
He has to open them in a variety of places as the lead water operator in Hurley, Pence, and Iron Belt, three communities in Iron County.
With 18 years of experience, Laguna is in charge of ensuring a reliable flow of water to customers’ faucets and doing near-constant water quality testing.
While he plays a critical role in water customers’ lives, Laguna says many people don’t have a clear understanding of the workings of the systems he oversees.
“There’s pumps out there somewhere. There’s wells that pump it, and it comes into the city through all of these pipes, and it ends up coming out of my faucet,” Laguna said. “But other than that, I would say the general populace may not know much more than that.”
For example, many people wouldn’t know Hurley pumps none of its own water, instead buying it from the municipal grids of adjacent Ironwood, Mich. and Montreal, Wis.
They wouldn’t know the technology for water infrastructure records in Hurley, like some other small communities, is still catching up with the times. Right now, records are kept on little notecards in a filing drawer, although Hurley is about to go live with a detailed digital mapping system.
But no matter how their systems operate, municipal water operators in Wisconsin have to follow the same rules. Laguna’s crew tests regularly for more than 90 contaminants in drinking water. Those results are then reported to the state.
One group of contaminants Laguna has never tested for is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Those are the chemicals linked to risks for cancer, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol. They were found in elevated levels in Rhinelander city wells in 2019 through voluntary testing, leading the city to shut down two of its five active wells.
Laguna’s not alone in not testing for the chemicals.
A WXPR investigation found, save for Rhinelander, none of the 23 municipal water systems in the Northwoods have tested for PFAS. That includes water systems in Oneida, Vilas, Forest, Lincoln, Langlade, and Iron counties.
PFAS testing isn’t mandated by the state or federal government.
But the findings mean nearly 40,000 people in the Northwoods are drinking water that might have PFAS, and might not. We simply don’t know.
But a widespread testing program could certainly be accomplished, if state leaders made it a priority.
In fact, Michigan accomplished it in 2018 at a cost of $1.7 million.
“We wanted to have across-the-board data for the entire state to determine the impact that these PFAS compounds were having on drinking water supplies,” said Scott Dean, a spokesman for the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.
The state became the first in the nation to sample every community water system and every school for PFAS. It made results available online within 48 hours.
“I can look at my town’s numbers and see [what was found]. It really provides a lot of transparency and helps folks understand the scope of this issue and what their own personal results are,” Dean said.
Ninety-seven percent of tests showed no PFAS or tiny concentrations of the chemical, but the results led the state to take immediate action in Parchment, wholly switching the water supply for 3,000 people.
Carly Michiels, the government relations director at Clean Wisconsin, believes Wisconsin should follow the Michigan model.
“Now that we know that PFAS is a problem and is contaminating our water at the detriment of providing safe drinking water to our citizens, we should be testing for that,” she said.
Michigan makes its results easy to access.
Wisconsin has never even had the data to make available.
“Wisconsin is not there yet, so we can only imagine, we can guess what types of manufacturers and heavy users of these products,” Michiels said. “There is probably contamination in these areas, but until we actually start testing and doing that work, we’re not going to know.”
Michiels wants the state to pass the CLEAR Act, which would bypass a years-long DNR regulatory process and immediately establish PFAS limits in state code. It would also set up a Michigan-style statewide sample.
The bill is sponsored by Democrats, who hold a deep minority in the Wisconsin legislature. A competing Republican-sponsored bill would be more limited in scope, addressing the use of fire-fighting foam, a known source of PFAS.
Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) attorney Rob Lee hopes the state opts for comprehensive legislation like the CLEAR Act.
“I think in a lot of municipalities right now in Wisconsin, [the attitude is] ‘just don’t do it until you’re required to.’ As a public health advocate and an attorney at MEA, obviously, my answer is ‘definitely test for it,’” Lee said.
A requirement for PFAS testing might come sooner through legislation, or may come later through the DNR rules process.
In any event, Laguna expects to have to test for it at some point.
“If tests are taken and it’s shown to be a significant area of concern, I think that’s going to open up the floodgates for potential testing,” he said.
Generally, he’s okay with that.
“Sometimes, I think, we, in society, can all have feelings of, ‘There’s just too many rules.’ But really, when it comes to water, our jobs boil down to public health,” Laguna said. “You can never do enough to protect that.”