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January 19, 2020

12/19/2019 7:30:00 AM
DNR: Rhinelander airport the 'most likely source' of PFAS contamination
Airport director seeks more information
Heather Schaefer and Jamie Taylor
Of the River News

The Department of Natural Resources has yet to identify an entity other than the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport as a probable responsible party with respect to the discovery of PFAS contaminants in two City of Rhinelander wells but that doesn't mean the mystery surrounding the contamination has been definitively solved.

In a phone interview with the River News Tuesday, DNR Northern Region Remediation and Redevelopment program supervisor Chris Saari offered insight into the agency's decision to direct the airport to take remediation measures and where the contamination probe will go from here.

On Dec. 9, Saari sent the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport a "responsible party" letter directing it to take immediate action to stop the spread of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the groundwater. The agency, the city of Rhinelander, and various county and state health officials have been investigating the presence of PFAS in two Rhinelander wells since June when municipal well 7 was taken out of service after unacceptable levels of the chemical were found in the water. A second city well was taken offline in November after the same contaminants were detected in water from that source.

PFAS are man-made chemicals that have been used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, fire-fighting foam, and products that resist grease, water and oil. Recent scientific findings indicate that exposure to certain PFAS may have harmful health effects in people. According to the EPA, exposure to some PFAS substances above certain levels may increase the risk of adverse health effects, such as thyroid disease, low birthweights and cancer.

According to Saari, the airport's history of storing and testing firefighting foam, the relatively close proximity of the airport to the wells and the airport's report that remnants of the foam not collected on the terminal ramp during annual tests "is released to the nearest storm water drain which is coupled to Rhinelander's wastewater treatment facility" are factors that led to the decision to identify the airport as the "most likely source" of the contamination.

"We've determined they're the most likely source," Saari said. "We're continuing to evaluate whatever other information we can get our hands on and if we identify any other likely sources we'll contact them in the same fashion."

While some 20 other parties, including several businesses located in or near the airport industrial park, also received what is referred to as "potential responsible party" letters from the DNR requesting information about their practices, the airport is the only entity to receive a second letter, Saari confirmed.

"If we get other information presented to us that suggests (the contamination) comes from somewhere else, or is coming from multiple sources, we'll absolutely look at that," he stressed.

In particular, Saari noted that the description of residue from the foam tests being released to a storm water drain connected to the wastewater treatment facility was concerning as, in his estimation, that is an unusual configuration.

"They referenced that the foam they did use in testing would end up in a storm sewer which is connected to the municipal wastewater plant," Saari said. "My understanding is most storm sewers are not set up that way. Storm water is conveyed differently than municipal wastewater."

This is how airport director Matthew Leitner explained the airport's testing of the foam to the DNR.

"Regarding our use of firefighting foam (AFFF) I wish to state emphatically and unequivocally that this is something we use very judiciously and sparingly," Leitner wrote in response to the DNR's initial letter requesting information related to the airport's handling of the foam. "Since 1994 there have been no instances of AFFF being deployed for an aircraft incident or accident. To the best of our collective knowledge and documented Airport history, AFFF has never been utilized during an emergency situation. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires AFFF to be tested for optimal concentration on an annual basis and the Airport assumes responsibility for conducting these tests. This test is different from our FAA-mandated annual 'live burn' training during which Airport, city and volunteer fire personnel use water to extinguish fires generated by propane. Firefighting foam is never used at the Airport for the purposes of training or practice. An AFFF test entails the following procedure: Approximately 2-4 gallons are released from the fire truck's front-mounted turret and a random sample is analyzed using a refractometer. The test occurs on the terminal ramp proximate to the Airport's fire station. AFFF not collected on the ramp is released to the nearest storm water drain which is coupled to Rhinelander's wastewater treatment facility."

Leitner said Monday he was very surprised the airport was identified as a responsible party.

In an email to the River News Wednesday, he further explained the complexity of the situation in which the airport has found itself.

"At this point I still wish for more information and help from DNR," Leitner wrote in the email. "It would appear all that's been determined is we're in possession of a material known to contain PFAS and are closest to the well, no further proof or explanation, no site or field visit to my knowledge. I can't help but wonder how long PFAS has been present at the well site and if other historical records and past practices were adequately researched by DNR, including those sanctioned or permitted by regulatory agencies that may affect water reaching the well in question?"

In its initial letter to the airport and the 20 other parties, the agency requested a history of the owners, occupants and land uses of their property. The affected parties were also asked to provide information as to any manufacturing that occurred on the property in the past and the years of its operation. The letter recipients were also asked to include a description of any documented hazardous substance spills, groundwater or surface water contamination, and any environmental investigation or remediation efforts that have occurred on the property.

According to Saari, thus far, none of the other recipients of the letters have offered information indicating a link to PFAS.

In his Wednesday email, Leitner also expounded upon the airport's use of the firefighting foam, stressing that the Federal Aviation Administration requires the airport to keep the foam on hand in case of an emergency.

"With respect to AFFF (firefighting foam) I'd like to reiterate that we're bound by federal (FAA) law to keep it on hand and to test it annually, there are no alternatives at this point," Leitner wrote. "Testing entails discharging a small amount at low pressure into a bucket and measuring the foam for optimal concentration (about 3%) with a refractometer. When done, we put the spent foam into a thick plastic tote. Foam is not discharged for our amusement, nor is it used for practice during a live fire exercise. That operation is performed with water from the truck and a propane fire, controlled by a technician. Firefighting foam is extremely expensive, to simply fill our truck would cost about $10,000. Moreover, our firefighting truck is replaced before the foam needs to be and the foam goes with the truck when it's traded for a new one."

Leitner reiterated that the airport is cooperating with the DNR and is hoping the agency, as well as other levels of government, will provide the necessary assistance.

"If we're being required to hire environmental consultants at our expense, it would help to know where to start?," he wrote. "My impression is that we're following and adhering to all known best practices. We're a comparatively small operation with scant resources and this presents an unwelcome burden when all we've been doing is conforming to regulations and ensuring the safety of the traveling public to the best of our ability. All that being said, it's incumbent upon me to ensure we do our utmost to rectify the situation as it presently exists; it's a responsibility I take seriously and will continue to do so. I feel, however, that it'll require the assistance of our local, regional, state and federal partners and look forward to their collaboration and assistance."

According to the DNR's Dec. 9 letter, the airport is required to take significant steps to address the contamination.

To start, the airport must hire a qualified environmental consultant within 30 days, document what immediate actions were taken and how it affected the contamination.

The process will also involve work plans, field investigations, site investigations and semi-annual reports until the DNR issues a case closure, according to the letter.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, December 20, 2019
Article comment by: Dan Butkus

Priceless! The city injected waste treatment sludge into the ground at the airport in the late 80s early 90s. Then a few years later put Well 7 & 8 downhill from and near the sludge injection sites. Way to go Rhinelander!

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