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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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February 18, 2020

12/21/2019 7:30:00 AM
Commission hires consulting firm to assist with PFAS investigation
Jamie Taylor and Heather Schaefer
Of the River News

The Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport Commission on Friday approved the hiring of an environmental consulting firm to help coordinate its response to the Department of Natural Resources' allegation that firefighting foam stored and tested at the airport is the most likely cause of PFAS contamination detected in two City of Rhinelander wells.

In a Dec. 9 letter to the airport administration, the DNR directed that a consultant be brought in within 30 days to assist with the remediation process. The airport is the first, and so far only, local entity identified by the agency as a "responsible party" with respect to the PFAS contamination found in two municipal wells 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 relatively 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.

While the commission voted unanimously to hire the consulting firm Mead & Hunt, airport officials are not convinced that the firefighting foam is responsible for the contamination.

Airport director Matt Leitner told the commission that documents obtained from the city's wellhead protection plan show groundwater flows away from wells 7 and 8, which are located by the northwest edge of the airport property.

In addition, Leitner noted airport officials are also researching reports of wastewater sludge disposal on airport property decades ago.

He also stressed that the DNR sent the letter characterizing the airport as a responsible party without actually visiting the airport.

"There was no investigation, from what I could discern, there was no site visit, there was no field visit," Leitner said of the DNR's position. "It's just that we have it (the foam) on hand, it doesn't matter whether or not we used it in the past."

The Federal Aviation Administration mandates the airport keep the foam on hand "to protect the traveling public," from airplane fires, he added.

"If we get rid of it, we can't operate," Leitner noted.

Leitner also reported that he participated in a conference call Friday morning with officials from Mead & Hunt, as well as other hydrologists, chemists and environmental engineers.

"They were from West Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin to the West Coast. They reviewed our correspondence with the DNR and DNR's letter, and they ascertained - and I asked the question many times to make sure I had the response clear - that given our history, it is extremely unlikely that we are responsible for the PFAS in that well," he said.

According to Leitner, "it is well known" that sludge from the city's wastewater treatment plant was disposed of on airport property in the late 1980s into the early '90s.

"The city of Rhinelander injected sludge onto the northwest side of the airport from the wastewater treatment facility, according to my predecessor and an operations agent who was working here at the time that he interviewed," Leitner told the commissioners. "We are trying to obtain the permits from the DNR from that operation."

The River News is working to independently verify Leitner's claims about the sludge operation.

Retired airport director Joe Brauer, who was hired to manage the airport in 1990, corroborated Leitner's claims with firsthand memories of the operation, however city of Rhinelander officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In addition, DNR officials did not respond to phone messages left Friday seeking verification of the sludge operation.

Using a large aerial photograph of the airport, Leitner showed the commissioners where he was told the sludge was injected. Some of the round pits are still visible in the photo, he noted.

"The wells are here," he said. "The hydrology of this field is everything runs from northwest to southeast. That means that anything from here (where the sludge was allegedly disposed of) goes directly to the well site. Anything from over here (airport terminal area) continues southeast. To the best of my knowledge, we have never sprayed foam in this (northwest) vicinity."

"They said it is impossible for the foam can get to the wells," Leitner added.

After hearing from Leitner, and faced with the deadline set forth in the DNR's Dec. 9 letter, the commission voted to hire Mead and Hunt at a cost not to exceed $15,000.

A more detailed account of the commission's meeting and the discussion about the sludge pits will appear in a future edition.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at

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