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January 19, 2020

12/17/2019 7:30:00 AM
DNR issues directive to airport in connection with PFAS contamination

Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

On Dec. 9, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Remediation and Redevelopment Program sent the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport a "responsible party" letter directing it to take immediate action to stop the spread of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the groundwater.

It appears the airport is the first local entity identified by the agency as a "responsible party" with respect to the PFAS contamination found in Rhinelander wells.

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.

Some 20 other entities located in or near the airport industrial park also received "potential responsible party" letters from the DNR in late July, however there is no indication whether any of them have received a followup "responsible party" letter, as of yet.

Those entities who received the "potential responsibility letters", authored by Carrie Stoltz, a DNR hydrogeologist and project manager for the PFAS remediation program at City Well #7, were given 30 days to respond with documents.

"The Department also requests that you provide us with a history of the owners, occupants and land uses of your property. Please provide any information that you may have as to any manufacturing that occurred on your property in the past and the years of its operation. Also include a description of any documented hazardous substance spills, groundwater or surface water contamination, and any environmental investigation or remediation efforts that have occurred on your property. Please provide any additional information that may aid in determining the source of contamination of the above- referenced site," the agency directed.

City well #7 was taken offline this summer after samples of the water showed levels of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) 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 the well.

According to the DNR "responsible party" letter, it was information received from the airport in response to the first letter that led to the conclusion that the airport is a responsible party.

"The airport's response to the PRP letter indicates that PFAS-containing fire-fighting foam (AFFF) is stored and is used at the airport," the letter states. "This information indicates that you are responsible for the discharge(s) of a hazardous substance or other environmental pollution (herein referred to as "contamination") at the property mentioned above."

Airport director Matt Leitner told the River News Monday the airport has every intention of cooperating with the DNR but he is having difficulty understanding why the agency appears to be singling out the airport.

"I'm kind of incredulous," he said. "I don't know how they connected the dots between here and the well."

Firefighting foam has been mentioned as a potential cause of the contamination since the first well was taken offline. However, Leitner has been adamant that the airport follows all requirements for the handing of these chemicals.

In his response letter to Stoltz, Leitner outlined the airport's procedures for storing and testing the foam annually.

"We put a little in a bucket and use a refractometer to make sure it has optimum concentration and then we return it to a container that is perfectly sealed and tight," he told the River News Monday.

Leitner also noted that the airport and the industrial park are separate.

"The industrial park and manufacturing facilities peripheral to the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport are not on airport property and we would have no information or data pertaining to their activities," Leitner wrote in an email to Stoltz on Aug. 1.

"I am only interested in the history of the airport property and would like to know if the airport has ever used AFFF (Aqueous Firefighting Foam)," Stoltz replied that same day. "This foam contains PFAS compounds and may have been used at the airport for firefighting, crash sites or in fire training exercises."

According to the DNR's Dec. 9 letter, the airport will be required to take significant steps to address the contamination. To start, the airport must hire a qualified environmental consultant within 30 days, document what immediate actions were taken and how it affected the contamination.

The process will also involve work plans, field investigations, site investigations and semi-annual reports until the DNR issues a case closure, according to the letter.

"We've begun the procedure of evaluating an environmental consultant, if it comes to that," Leitner told the River News.

Leitner noted that is unclear to him whether the airport has been deemed the sole source of the PFAS that forced the city to take wells 7 and 8 offline or if the other entities who received letters will also be required to take remedial action.

"I wish I knew," he replied. "I don't know what they're doing as far as that is concerned. The letter just says we are a responsible party."

Stoltz provided the River News with additional documentation with respect to the PFAS issue. A detailed account of what those documents show will be published in a future edition of the River News.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at

Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, December 18, 2019
Article comment by: Dan Butkus

Not sure why Leitner needed to get so defensive. Logically, the two wells are on or very near airport property. Also, they have on hand materials that contain PFAS. If no other company in the business park uses materials with PFAS in them, the first conclusion is it may be the airport. So they need to provide documentation. This should clear up the concern. And if Leitner is confident it's not the airport, what's the big deal? Comply with the request. If it turns out the airport isn't the source, then as the fictional Sherlock Holmes would say, if we eliminate the possible, then what remains, however improbable, is the solution. So if not the airport, then the improbable would be intentional contamination by directly introducing PFAS into the wells. Now there's a scary thought.

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