WXPR The Stream

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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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For part of the year, a gravel road reaches a remote piece of Vilas County land.

But in the winter, a mile-long snowshoe is the only way in.

Snow decorated an evergreen forest as Trisha Moore and Troy Walters reached their destination and greeted Bob Martini, who owns the 31 acres of wilderness northeast of Eagle River.

Forty years ago, he built an eight-sided cabin here by hand.

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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.

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Trig Solberg’s group plans to keep up the fight to pump water for bottling from near a rural lake in Vilas County.

In a letter dated Tuesday, the group’s attorney, John Houlihan, alerted Vilas County Circuit Court Judge Neal Nielsen that the matter will likely end up in his courtroom again.

“Please be advised that Carlin Club Properties intends to request this Court to again review this decision of the Board,” Houlihan wrote.

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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.

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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.

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In the late 1990s, when Patrick Taylor moved back to his Merrill hometown, he bought a house on the water.

It was one of more than a hundred homes on a mill pond created by the old Ward paper mill dam.

“It was a great area for duck hunting,” Taylor said.

Other people on the water fished, swam, or canoed.

Then, Taylor learned the water was about to disappear.

“The day after we closed on the house, they announced the removal of the dam,” he said in an interview this week.

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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.

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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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Once again on Thursday, a Vilas County committee rejected Trig Solberg’s attempt to collect water from a well in Presque Isle for commercial bottling.

Over a span of nearly five years, Solberg’s group has been blocked time and again by judges, boards, and administrators.  It wants to take water from near rural Carlin Lake, bottle it, and sell it in stores.  Solberg is the founder of Trig’s supermarkets.

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Jim and Ruth Brennan thought the days of iron ore mining in northern Wisconsin were over.

So when Gogebic Taconite started drawing up plans about earlier this decade for a massive mine near their home in southern Ashland County, they were surprised, to say the least.

“A three- or four-mile ditch that would actually come within about a mile of our house,” said Jim Brennan.

Jim and Ruth live in the town of Morse, near Mellen and Copper Falls State Park.

Their unique house overlooks Lake Galilee.

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

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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.

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