PFAS

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Nearly two months ago, the DNR recommended the City of Rhinelander make full PFAS testing results available on the city’s website.

As of Thursday afternoon, those testing results still weren’t posted for the public to see.

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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.

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A Rhinelander High School science class set out to create a PFAS water filter while competing in a national competition.

The class won’t advance in the contest, but it will still keep working on water quality.

Cheryl Esslinger’s Earth and Environmental Systems class was trying to design an effective, affordable filter for water.  Esslinger thought of the project after the contaminant was found in city water supplies this summer.

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The City of Rhinelander injected tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater sludge into the ground above where two city wells were later located, according to the former director of the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport.

This year, those wells were shut down after tests showed high levels of PFAS, a contaminant tied to health risks.

From 1988 to 1992, the city took sludge from its wastewater treatment plant and injected it into the ground at the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport, former airport director Joe Brauer said Friday.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

People in Rhinelander and across the Northwoods want to know their water is clean, drinkable, and safe.

But that expectation has been muddied in the past year, with the discovery of elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Rhinelander’s municipal water supply.

The finding of PFAS, which has been linked to risk cancer, thyroid disease, and higher cholesterol, led Rhinelander to shut down two of its five city wells.

That’s left some people confused about where their water is coming from, how much is available, and if it’s safe.

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.

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On Tuesday, high school junior Mariah Freeman watched water drip through a filter she designed and constructed.

“We’re going to take the filter we’ve made, and we’re going to pour that water through it, and then retest the water in the new bottle,” Freeman explained.

Freeman and her classmates in Cheryl Esslinger’s Earth and Environmental Systems class at Rhinelander High School were simply trying to filter vinegar out of the water and balance its acidity.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Wisconsin landfills are concerned they’re taking the blame for PFAS contamination.

But a new coalition of solid waste professionals points out landfills and recycling centers don’t produce the chemicals, they only receive them from other sources.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Rhinelander Mayor Chris Frederickson says he tried to get the state to provide clear direction on rising levels of a PFAS compound in a city well, but got nothing.

Instead, Frederickson himself ordered the well shut down last Friday.

Well 8 became the second Rhinelander city water well shut down due to PFAS concerns, joining Well 7.  Various types of compounds in the PFAS family have been linked to health risks.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Rhinelander Mayor Chris Frederickson ordered a second city water well shut down Friday as levels of a PFAS-family chemical continued to rise.

Earlier this month, WXPR reported Well 8 was still providing water to the city as concentrations of PFHxS continued upward.

On Friday, Frederickson said those levels caused him to order the shutoff.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Note: this story has been updated to include comments from the DNR's Kyle Burton in a Tuesday interview.  Rhinelander City Administrator Daniel Guild has been invited to comment.

In a letter to Rhinelander City Administrator Daniel Guild on Tuesday, the Wisconsin DNR said it had “no reason to question the accuracy” of tests showing high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in a city water well.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

The DNR admitted putting new rules on PFAS in groundwater, drinking water, and surface water will have a “significant” economic impact on the state.

DNR staff also listened to the public, environmentalists, and industry groups at a hearing over a proposed PFAS regulation scope statement last week.

Wisconsin is in the early steps of regulating PFAS, a family of chemicals with health hazards.

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Despite ongoing concerns about city drinking water, Rhinelander’s Common Council adopted a

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Note: This story has been updated from its original version with information about PFHxS studies in animals and humans.             

This summer, tests showed Rhinelander’s Municipal Well 7 was contaminated with PFAS chemicals.

However, the most recent tests show no detection of the two main chemicals in the PFAS family, PFOA and PFOS.  Even so, that well remains offline, and is not contributing to the city’s drinking water supply.

The latest testing on Rhinelander’s Municipal Well 7 showed no detection of the two best-known per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals.

In June, the city shut off Well 7 after the combined PFOA and PFOS levels exceeded both federal and state recommendations for the compounds, which have been linked to health problems.

Since then, the city has been drawing drinking water for residents from its other active wells.

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