Note: Watch this story Wednesday night (2/19) at 10 p.m. on NBC 26.
More than 100 utilities around Wisconsin declined to participate in a request to test wastewater for PFAS, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, or DNR.
PFAS are man-made chemicals which can be found in products including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpet, and certain fire-fighting foams, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, or DHS.
PFAS can contaminate water, according to DHS.
The DNR made the PFAS wastewater testing request last summer. The DNR requested utilities including Appleton Wastewater Treatment Facility and NEW Water run the tests, both of which declined. Participation was voluntary. The NEW Water service area includes Green Bay, De Pere, and Ashwaubenon, among other areas.
"[T]he DNR is asking you to find out, 'Do you have a problem?' and next of all, 'Can you identify the source of the problem?'” said Doug Oitzinger, the former mayor of Marinette who is outspoken on the issue of PFAS and health.
“We can't begin to fix it, if we don't know where it's coming from."
To date, five utilities either tested for PFAS or agreed to participate in a study testing wastewater for PFAS, according to Jason Knutson, wastewater section chief for the DNR.
"PFAS are used quite ubiqiotously throughout society, but they oftentimes stem from industrial sources as the highest magnitude sources of these compounds," Knutson said.
“Wherever PFAS does occur in wastewater treatment plants… it often times is [split] between the water… that is discharged and also biosolids,” Knutson said.
Biosolids, a remnant of the treatment process, are “nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment facility,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
For both Appleton’s wastewater treatment plant and NEW Water, treated water is discharged into the Fox River.
NEW Water incinerates or landfills its biosolids, according to the utility’s executive director.
The Appleton plant’s biosolids in 2019 were applied on more than a half-dozen northeast Wisconsin farm properties, where crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, or alfalfa are grown, according to a records request and conversations with farmers or landowners.
Officials from Appleton Utilities and NEW Water declined our request for an interview.
Also part of the DNR’s request was an effort to identify the potential sources of PFAS, which Knutson said might be more important than the testing itself.
Appleton Utilities asked nearly a dozen industrial accounts about any PFAS products used, with only one responding with a clear “yes.”
A statement from NEW Water said the utility will work to minimize the sources of PFAS.
“Wastewater facilities are not the source of PFAS, and also not designed to remove these chemicals from the process,” the NEW Water statement reads, in part.
“Water protection is at the core of what we do at NEW Water, and we are committed to working with our partners at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and others to find science-based solutions that minimize this pollutant at its sources,” Executive Director of NEW Water, Tom Sigmund, said in the statement.
Marinette and Peshtigo have tested for PFAS, while Eau Claire, Horicon, Peshtigo, and Stevens Point agreed to participate in a study that will test for PFAS, according to the DNR.
“PFAS contamination has been detected in the Marinette and Peshtigo area in soil, sediment, groundwater, surface water, private drinking water wells and biosolids,” according to a DNR website.
PFAS was “discharged to the environment” after fire-fighting foams were tested at the Fire Technology Center, 2700 Industrial Pkwy in Marinette, now owned by Johnson Controls (JCI), according to the DNR.
“PFAS was also discharged to the sanitary sewer at JCI's Stanton Street Campus in the city of Marinette,” according to the DNR.
“As a result of this discharge, PFAS entered Marinette's Wastewater Treatment Plant, partitioned to the plant's biosolids and were then landspread on fields in the area,” according to the DNR site.
A Johnson Controls executive said the company has made changes at the properties and assisted the City of Marinette.
From the Johnson Controls Stanton Street campus, there is now no PFAS-related wastewater going to the City of Marinette system, "that has all been stopped as of spring of... 2019," John Perkins, vice president of environment, health, and safety for Johnson Controls, said. Disposal is now handled through a licensed, off-site facility, Perkins said.
There is also no new discharge of PFAS from the Fire Training Center, Perkins said. The facility stopped all sewer discharges from the FTC in the spring of 2019, Perkins said. All outdoor uses of foam at the FTC stopped in 2017, Perkins said.
JCI in 2019 helped Marinette with the disposal of all of the wastewater treatment facility's biosolids at a licensed disposal facility, Perkins said.
A system was installed to remove PFOS and PFOA (under the PFAS umbrella) from water in a channel at the Fire Technology Center, according to tycomarinette.com, a website to which a JCI official pointed a reporter.
A separate system treats and removes PFOS and PFOA from a different ditch, according to tycomarinette.com.
"Specifically to the study area, our number one priority has always been to ensure that each and every one of the affected residents have clean, safe, and reliable drinking water,” Perkins said.