Jamie Taylor/river news
Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport Director Matt Leitner uses a large aerial photograph of the airport property to explain the information he received from consultants regarding the likelihood that firefighting foam is responsible for the PFAS contamination found in two city of Rhinelander wells located near the airport.
12/28/2019 7:30:00 AM Airport commission grapples with PFAS puzzle
Retired airport director recalls sludge operation
Jamie Taylor and Heather Schaefer Of the River News
The Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport Commission is on the front lines of the community's ongoing effort to solve the mystery of how per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) made their way into two Rhinelander municipal wells. The commission, which consists of just three people, has found itself in this unique position due to a number of factors including geography - the two PFAS-contaminated wells are located near the airport - and the Federal Aviation Administration's requirement that firefighting foam be tested annually to ensure its effectiveness in case of an airplane fire.
On Dec. 9, the Department of Natural Resources sent airport officials a letter advising that the agency had determined the airport was the "most likely" source of the PFAS contamination that resulted in the shutdown of city wells Nos. 7 and 8 earlier this year.
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.
City well #7 was taken offline in June after samples of the water showed PFAS levels above the EPA's health advisory (70ng/L) and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) recommended groundwater standard level (20 ng/L). Municipal well #8, which is located near #7, was taken offline in November when the same chemicals were detected in samples from that source.
According to DNR Northern Region Remediation and Redevelopment program supervisor Chris Saari, the airport's history of storing and testing firefighting foam, the close proximity of the airport to the wells and the airport's report that remnants of the foam not collected 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."
Airport officials, led by director Matt Leitner, reacted to the DNR's letter with skepticism. While the FAA requires the foam be kept on-site, Leitner stressed it is used only once a year - during an FAA-mandated test - and is ejected into a bucket.
"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," he told the River News. "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?"
Making matters even more complicated, the airport is, thus far, the only entity designated as a probable responsible party for the contamination. While some 20 other parties, including several businesses located in or near the airport industrial park, also received "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.
The second letter included directives from the DNR to the airport including the mandatory hiring of an environmental consultant within 30 days.
It was this series of events that led to the airport commission's Dec. 20 meeting where Leitner updated the three commissioners - Patrick Marquart, Brad Kowieski and Geoff Weller - on his efforts to comply with the DNR's directions.
Leitner reported that his predecessor, retired airport director Joe Brauer, had advised him that the city of Rhinelander had a practice of disposing of sludge generated by the wastewater treatment plant by injecting it into the earth on airport property near where wells 7 and 8 were later constructed.
In a phone interview with the River News, Brauer said the sludge operation was already in place when he reported for work as the new airport director on Feb. 1, 1990. In speaking with other retired workers from that era, he said the consensus is the operation began around 1988.
"They would come out two or three times a day, basically four days a week, with this sludge truck and basically inject the sludge (from the city's wastewater treatment plant) into the earth out at the airport in specified areas," Brauer remembers.
The operation ended in 1992 after the FAA expressed a concern not about potential contamination but about birds, Brauer explained.
As Brauer tells it, the FAA directed that the sludge operation be shut down because officials there were concerned that the sludge was enriching the soil to a degree that the earthworm population would increase and that, in turn, would lead to an uptick in the bird population, resulting in a potential safety hazard for pilots flying into and out of the airport.
"The FAA called me up and said 'Hey Joe, better shut that down'" Brauer recalled.
Brauer also noted it is his understanding that the city had to get a permit from the DNR to spread the sludge.
Leitner reiterated the same point to the airport commissioners, and noted that the paperwork maybe a crucial piece of the puzzle.
"We need this permit because we don't feel the airport is responsible for PFAS," Leitner told the commission.
The sludge pits where the material was put into the ground are located on the northwest edge of the airport property on the approach to the main runway, Leitner told the commissioners, using a large aerial photo of the airport property as a visual aid.
He also explained what he had learned about the hydrology of the area in a conference call earlier that morning with experts from the environmental consulting firm Mead & Hunt.
"Anything northwest of the airfield flows southeast," Leitner said he was told. "The sludge was here, and the wells are here."
"We have to put together a work plan (per the DNR's directive)," Leitner continued. "But based on all the evidence, and based on everything we've been told by the 'experts,' the PFAS experts on the phone, it was quite a gathering, the chance that the airport is responsible for that contamination is infinitesimal."
Hearing this, the commissioners expressed frustration.
"There should be a rebuttal," said Marquart, the commission chair. "Somebody else should be looking at this first before we go spending money and jumping through hoops..."
"I have been living in this dimension for a week solid," Leitner replied. "Asking these questions is vexing. You got matches, you're responsible for this fire because you were the closest."
He noted that there is intense interest in PFAS right now, and people sometimes look for a "politically expedient" solution rather than the correct one.
"It seems to me, and this is just myself talking, that it was a convenient solution at this point," Leitner said. "And we bear the responsibility of proving it false."
"The problem I have with the whole thing is there is no proof of anything," Marquardt said. "It's like saying you're guilty until proven innocent."
Frustrations aside, the commission voted unanimously to hire Mead & Hunt, at a cost not to exceed $15,0000, to serve as the airport's environmental consultant. The firm is expected to write a draft work plan and submit it to the DNR in January. The firm will also address the DNR's comments on that work plan.
The River News asked Saari for a response to the wastewater sludge theory as well as the news that the airport's consultant has opined that, based on the hydrology of the area, the chances of the airport being the source of the PFAS is "almost zero."
"As we have said all along, we want to look at whatever information is out there," Saari replied. "We had heard, I guess more or less rumors, that wastewater treatment plant sludge had been spread somewhere near the airport, but no one had ever come forward and said, yes, here's where it was, this is what had happened sort of thing."
He said any data that can be provided to pinpoint the source of the contamination is welcome so that next steps can be mapped out.
"I would also like to see the evaluation from their (airport) consultant that there is zero chance or almost zero chance that this came from fire-fighting foam at the airport," Saari said. "Especially if they were just hired this morning."
Saari also pointed out that the airport is not alone, in terms of the responsibility letter, as it is funded by both the city and county.
"(The letter) was addressed to the city, the county and the airport," Saari said. "So all three of those parties have been named as potentially responsible here. So if it were an action from the city, the city has already been put on notice that we expect something to happen."
Thus far, city officials have not responded to a request from the River News to verify Brauer's information related to the sludge operation.
Saari stressed that it is early in the process of untangling whatever series of events led to the contamination.
"We have to figure out where it came from and if it is still coming from there," he said. "Picture a leaking tank at a gas station and you might have gasoline showing up in the neighbor's drinking water well and maybe you can trace it back to that tank. Then it becomes is the tank still there, is it still leaking, is the contamination still in the ground, is it getting into the groundwater? That's the kind of thing we need to figure out, and then come up with the best approach to remedy that."
It might be too early to say the sludge is the cause, he added.
"Wastewater treatment plant sludge does not equal PFAS," he said. "The PFAS would have to be in some kind of wastewater stream in the first place in order to get into the wastewater treatment plant sludge."
He said the city of Marinette has had a high concentration of PFAS in their wastewater stream for years, and officials there are just now dealing with the sludge waste getting into the groundwater.
"I'm not saying this is the situation you have here," Saari added. "That's just something to keep in mind."
"We want to make sure that we evaluate every bit of evidence that we can find to make sure that we have identified (the source)," he stressed. "We would be remiss in our role if we didn't look for every possible source that could be out there. If we were to just say it's only the airport and we're not going to pay attention to a wastewater sludge that was spread, that's something we just wouldn't do."
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