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August 3, 2020

6/30/2020 7:29:00 AM
Consultant recommends PFAS testing at closed city landfill
Heather Schaefer
Of the River News

One year after a Rhinelander municipal well was taken out of service due to per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination, the city continues to search for the source of the pollution.

Helping in that effort is environmental consultant Dr. Jim Tinjum, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin.

In a presentation to the Rhinelander Common Council June 22, Tinjum presented a primer on PFAS and shared some preliminary thoughts as to potential sources of the Rhinelander contamination.

One such potential source is the old municipal landfill, he noted.

Toward the end of his talk, Tinjum suggested the council consider authorizing two rounds of testing at the closed landfill to rule it in or out as a potential source of the contamination.

"One of the potential sources could be that landfill. I just say 'could be.' We don't know. Other landfills are similar sources of these compounds," he explained.

PFAS are manmade chemicals developed to resist grease, water and oil.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to some PFAS substances above certain levels may increase the risk of adverse health effects, such as thyroid disease, low birthweights and cancer.

In his presentation, Tinjum noted that PFAS are "ubiquitous" in modern society as the chemicals can be found in everything from sunscreen to ski wax and non-stick frying pans.

"From West Virginia (where PFAS contamination was highlighted in the movie "Dark Waters") to Wisconsin, PFAS is here and all around us," the professor said, adding that the chemicals also "bioaccumulate" in the body.

"They call it the forever chemical for a reason," he noted.

Rhinelander was thrust into the PFAS spotlight last year when city officials took municipal No. 7 offline due to high levels of the chemicals in the drinking water. A second well, No. 8, was taken offline in November for the same reason, leaving the city with just three active wells.

Tinjum, who was hired by the council in January after the DNR suggested the source of the contamination could be firefighting foam stored at the airport, noted there are several ways PFAS could have found its way into the two wells.

It's possible the contamination is the result of wastewater sludge disposed of in fields near the airport back decades ago. However, the old landfill is another potential source, he noted.

"You do have a closed landfill that received industrial waste and municipal waste that is not lined," he told the council.

Later, he stressed that he was not drawing any definitive conclusions with respect to the closed landfill "other than that it is unlined, it was built, constructed, and closed before modern landfill design schemes came into place in Wisconsin."

He also noted that some of the leachate historically has been charged to the city wastewater treatment plant.

He suggested the testing be done in July and October and noted the cost would be around $15,000.

"You start ruling things out," he explained. "Do I have PFAS in the landfill, or not? Your landfill has experienced hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of testing and models in the past, but that wasn't for PFAS. That was for other things. So, I don't know what's in the landfill. I don't know if PFAS is there, but it's a fairly cheap thing to just go test and rule it out."

The council took no action following the presentation, however Tinjum indicated he will likely be back in a few weeks to talk about next steps.

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