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April 2, 2020

Jamie Taylor/river news

Airport director Matt Leitner, seen here during the Dec. 20, 2019 Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport Commission meeting, points toward a map of the airport property.
Jamie Taylor/river news

Airport director Matt Leitner, seen here during the Dec. 20, 2019 Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport Commission meeting, points toward a map of the airport property.
2/11/2020 7:30:00 AM
Attorney makes case for absolving airport as source of PFAS contamination
'This is far from the typical spill'
Jamie Taylor and Heather Schaefer
Of the River News

An attorney representing the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport and the two municipalities that operate it - the City of Rhinelander and Oneida County - has officially requested the Department of Natural Resource "clarify or rescind" a letter it issued to the airport in early December identifying it as the most likely source of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) detected last year in two municipal wells.

The letter, dated Feb. 6 and authored by Richard Lewandowski of the Madison law firm of Husch Blackwell, was addressed to Carrie Stoltz, the DNR hydrogeologist and project manager for the PFAS remediation program.

"We are asking that the DNR clarify or rescind the Responsible Party (RP) letter sent to the three units of government on December 9, 2019," Lewandowski wrote.

PFAS are a family of over 3,000 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.

Often referred to as "forever chemicals," PFAS are difficult to remediate. In addition to groundwater, the chemicals can also be found in the flesh of fish from contaminated bodies of water.

Rhinelander Municipal Well No. 7 was taken offline in June due to PFAS contamination. Five months later, Well 8 was taken out of service for the same reason.

The Crescent Spring has also been tested and found to be contaminated. The town has recommended that water from the spring not be used for human consumption.

In explaining the basis for issuing the Responsible Party letter to the airport, the DNR has focused heavily on the airport's storage of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), which the FAA requires the airport keep on hand in case of an aircraft fire.

In a phone interview in December, DNR Northern Region Remediation and Redevelopment director Chris Saari Saari said the airport's history of storing and testing the 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.

Airport director Matt Leitner has said repeatedly that the foam dispersed during the annual test has never been put into the storm drain.

Lewandowski repeated the assertion in his Feb. 6 letter.

"The Airport has never utilized AFFF in response to an aircraft emergency, or to fight an actual fire. The Airport does conduct FAA-required annual tests of its AFFF but does so in a very limited and controlled fashion. Current practice is to slowly release a small amount of AFFF into a five gallon pail for testing of dilution strength," Lewandowski wrote. "The Airport has already provided photographs of the totes that are used to store AFFF utilized after testing and prior to proper off site disposal. Furthermore, this testing is conducted in an area that is well removed from, and down gradient of the two municipal wells."

"Given the very limited quantities of AFFF utilized in testing and the containment procedures utilized, and in light of the location of this testing, there is no reason to believe that any of these materials would have migrated upstream to the ... well locations," he added.

In the letter, Lewandowski goes on to request the DNR "define and identify the source of the PFAS" that contaminated the two wells "before requiring further investigation and remediation by the three units of government."

"We make this request for several important reasons," the letter states. "First, the Department's apparent assumption that use of AFFF at the Airport must be the source of these results is incorrect, for the reasons explained above and in our January 22, 2020 letter to you. Second, all three units of local government have limited resources and personnel. The burden of tracking down the likely source of what has been found in the ...wells would fall disproportionately on them. Finally, with no obvious source, and given the extremely low levels of PFAS components that have been found, we are hard-pressed to understand what kind remedial work might be appropriate."

"This is far from the typical spill or historic release incident where the residuals are of well known origin and present at thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of times the levels identified here. One part per trillionisone millionth of a part per million," Lewandowski stressed.

The letter ends with a request for a meeting with the agency.

"If the Department is not prepared to rescind the RP letter, we ask for the opportunity to meet with you to discuss what realistically might be done," the letter states. "Given the unusual circumstances present here, we believe that would conserve scarce municipal resources and better focus their next steps. This will be of benefit to the three local governments, as well as the Department."

Reached for comment late Friday, Saari said the agency is certainly interested in scheduling a meeting with the local officials, but he was unsure how soon that might happen.

"I have no idea what the timeframe would be to meet with them," he said.

Jamie Taylor may be reached at

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