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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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home : news : city news
September 17, 2019

8/31/2019 7:30:00 AM
Administrator briefs council on city's response to well contamination
Officials offer differing statements on water utility bills
Jamie Taylor and Heather Schaefer
Of the River News

Just over a month after city of Rhinelander residents learned that a municipal well had been taken offline due to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination, city administrator Daniel Guild offered the Common Council a summary of the city's response to the well issue.

"First off, staff has completed three months worth of testing on all city wells," Guild said. "We have sampled all wells on May 30, June 27 and July 24 and shortly we will be taking a fourth water sample of all city wells, all different PFAS elements."

As a result of the testing, the city now has a "stream of data that is starting to trend," he added.

"I am also pleased to report that the latest round of testing of water from well 7 is well below the 70 parts per trillion recommendation from the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and also substantially below the 20 parts per trillion recommendation by the State of Wisconsin," Guild noted.

Based on that data, he told the council he "did not see this as an immediate concern with well 7."

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics and products that resist grease, water and oil. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to higher cholesterol, lower female fertility, lower infant birth weights, and other health risks, according to public health experts.

On July 22 and 23, the city and the Oneida County Health Department announced that water from municipal well No. 7 had tested above the EPA's health advisory (70ng/L) and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) recommended groundwater standard level (20 ng/L), and thus was taken offline.

Despite the new test results showing well 7 below the threshold, Guild told the council he wasn't prepared to put the well back into service.

He noted the high test results in May could have been the result of the test being contaminated after it was taken.

In turn, the most recent test could be lower because the well isn't disturbing the aquifer as much as if it were in service, he added.

"It could have been a plume, of some sort, that passes through the aquifer," Guild added.

He then sought to help the alderpersons visualize what "parts per trillion" means.

"That's 20 square inches out of every 250 square miles. That's 20 seconds in nearly 32,000 minutes, and that is one ounce in 7.5 billion gallons of water," Guild said. "So you are talking about the fact that our testing methods have become very sophisticated and we are able to detect trace amounts and extremely small quantities."

He then went through the "timeline of communications" on PFAS in Rhinelander's water.

"The city first participated in testing for a type of PFAS back in 2013," he stated.

"We participated in something called unregulated contaminant monitoring rule, in which home utilities all across the country, with populations of 10,000 or more, were required to submit reports to the EPA on PFAS contamination," Guild said. "We're below 10,000 people, so we were randomly selected and asked to volunteer to be tested."

In "digging through the files" Guild said he discovered a letter from the Department of Military Affairs sent in 2015 asking about the water quality at the Rhinelander National Guard Post "due to the concerns from what they've been discovering of issues on military sites in other places where there was regular use of flame retardant chemicals and things like that," Guild said. "There was also correspondence between the DNR and the city in 2016, 2017 and then again this year."

He also noted that former public works director Tim Kingman was invited on March 7, 2019 to participate in a panel on PFAS contamination issues in Rhinelander.

"So, there is a history here that goes back several years. I have put all the emails together, I have posted all of them on Facebook and the city's website," Guild said. "I recognize that not everyone is a computer-savvy person, so if you want those emails, you're welcome to give me a buzz and I'll be happy to get them to you."

On June 21, Guild and mayor Chris Frederickson received an email from Kingman reporting there was an issue with the well 7 test results, he continued.

"He communicated with us by email, but he never communicated with us what the issue was," Guild alleged.

The same day the state released its guidelines on PFAS, he noted.

"This was a new item for many of us," Guild noted, adding that the well was taken out of service on June 24.

Over the course of the next several weeks, Guild said the city worked with state and county health officials on the public notice that was released on July 22-23. He said he also started seeking out individuals with more experience dealing with the contaminants.

Guild said that he secured the services of attorney Jay Curtis, the former chief legal counsel for the DNR.

"Obviously he has some experience with the topic, and I liked to have the benefit of his experience," Guild said.

Given the other critical operations of the city he had to monitor, Guild explained that he felt it was in the city's best interest to have someone like Curtis helping with the water issue.

Guild said the delay in getting the notice out to the public was due to the DNR insisting that the city sign off on certain aspects of the notice. This was a problem for the city, Guild explained, because there was no one qualified to provide the signature.

Eventually, Curtis was able to talk to the current DNR chief legal counsel to amend the signature line so that it met the agency's requirements without placing the city in "unnecessary legal jeopardy" if someone signed it, Guild explained.

Guild said notices were mailed out to all water utility customers, however city hall has since received complaints that the letter didn't reach all customers.

Guild said the city had "hundreds" of the letters returned but did not offer a full explanation for the returned mail.

He did note that some water utility customers don't provide all the necessary information when they sign up for service.

"And I suspect that that is because we don't want all of that information because of privacy concerns, they really don't want to put all the information out there because they don't want to be easily found if they're not paying their bill," Guild said.

The city will be pursuing tools and public relations outreach to its water customers to correct this, he added.

However, in the days following the meeting, the River News learned that city finance director Wendi Bixby and finance assistant/billing clerk Beth Mannikko advised the council members the city typically sees 5 to 8 bills returned due to address issues in a typical month not hundreds.

"I would like to reassure you there is a process in place for managing returned utility bills and to clarify the number of returned utility bills is not large," Bixby wrote in an email to all of the alderpersons.

Guild and mayor Chris Frederickson also received copies of Bixby's email.

The River News offered Guild and Frederickson an opportunity to comment on the differing statements regarding the number of returned bills but neither city official responded to our request prior to press time.

According to Guild's report to the council, during June and July, various state agencies struggled with "guidances, directives, policies, recommendations" governing PFAS.

The League of Wisconsin Municipalities and other non-official groups concerned with water quality also weighed in, telling cities to be patient while everything was sorted out at the federal and state level, he added.

Guild said he contacted the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service that interacts with the EPA and learned more about PFAS.

"According to their reports... human trials were not done on anybody related to PFAS or PFOA," Guild said. "The reason for that is they were unable to come up with a way to create a control group because these types of chemicals are so pervasive throughout society that they're in everything."

There are studies being conducted on rodents, but those studies haven't been able to determine a causation link between exposure to the chemicals and specific health risks, he added.

"The other thing, too, is that according to the folks is that the EPA thus far has not found any causation information to conclude that PFAS is carcinogenic," Guild said.

Guild also noted that the city has taken steps to minimize the contamination since it was discovered.

"First off, all of the city's past consumer confidence reports have been assembled and put up online," Guild said. "So anybody who has been a water utility customer of this city should have received a consumer confidence report, which on the last page should have listed that the city has tested for PFAS voluntarily in 2013 under the unregulated contaminant monitoring rule. So this information has been out to customers since 2013, to some degree."

He also said the city has started working on updating its wellhead protection plan and water protection plans, to include formally adding them to the comprehensive plan.

This would give the city more legal teeth to stop potential polluters from setting up shop near city wells through zoning laws, he explained.

"I haven't seen any evidence that the city has been following up with businesses and property owners in the well head protection areas as required in those policies," Guild said.

He also said the city is exploring options through the United States Department of Agriculture to get water assistance grant money to cover the hiring a hydrologist to study how the water in the aquifers beneath the ground and the wells flows through the area.

The city is also exploring if it qualifies for an Emergency Response Grant under the American Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, along with other avenues the city might be able to tap for assistance.

"We're going to continue tests and report, put things up online, give people the primary documents so they can explore these things and make themselves knowledgeable and aware," Guild said.

Guild also read a statement he found in the process of his research that was a response to the people who had asked about the quality of Rhinelander's water.

"So the statement reads; 'in response to concerns about groundwater contamination by PFOS and PFAS, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has issued a set of draft, interim recommendations for guiding communities. However, the draft interim recommendations lack the necessary rationale for elevating the health advisory values for PFOS and PFOA to preliminary remediation goals. While we recognize the need for health advisories and interim screening levels for PFOS and PFOA, USEPA has not provided sufficient justification to explain why these draft recommendations add further protection to human health and the environment or how affected parties will be required to apply these criteria,' Guild read.

He also wanted the council to know that a formal testing protocol for PFAS or PFOA has not been established yet.

"The directive that the city received in mid-July was to use a protocol that was developed by the Department of Defense previously at military installations that I referenced earlier in trying to identify what some of these issues might be at military bases around the country," Guild said. "That guidance came mid-summer, and if you talk to samplers and testers and things like that, I think they will tell you that is not necessarily hard and fast science, it's still evolving."

He said he wanted customers of the water utility to know the city is continuing to monitor the situation and every time the city finds a new document pertaining to the chemicals, it will post it to the website.

The direct link to that folder on the city's website is http://bit.ly/HodagWaterQuality.

An audio recording of the city council meeting is also available on the City Hall Facebook page.





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