AG Josh Kaul listens to Marinette residents’ fears about PFAS

Kaul wouldn't comment on possible litigation against Johnson Controls and Tyco

Attorney General Josh Kaul in Marinette (Photo by Erik Gunn)
Attorney General Josh Kaul in Marinette (Photo by Erik Gunn)

For two hours in Marinette on Wednesday, the state’s chief prosecutor sat in a room full of angry people and heard their stories of illness, death, and fear.

And stories there were plenty — some told with fury, others through tears, and others simply with calm resignation.

Marinette citizens asked questions at a listening session on PFAS (photo by Erik Gunn)
Former Marinette Mayor Doug Oitzinger reads from an open letter to the company responsible for the Marinette PFAS contamination at Wednesday’s listening session. (photo by Erik Gunn)

The stories were told by residents of Marinette, Peshtigo, and the surrounding area. They focused on the suspected hazards from PFAS chemicals polluting groundwater and the land from manufacturing and testing firefighting foam at facilities previously owned by Tyco Industries and, after a corporate merger, now owned by Johnson Controls International Inc.

When the first meeting was over, Attorney General Josh Kaul told the Wisconsin Examiner later, he wasn’t surprised so much as motivated anew.

“There’s no doubt, having heard from people, that they’ve faced a lot of stress from PFAS contamination,” Kaul said — much of it centered around its potential harm to health. “But hearing firsthand from people, not just about concerns in general, but specifically concerns that impacted them, and about how it impacted their day-to-day life, reinforces for me the significance of this issue and the importance of getting justice in this case.”

Kaul took part in two listening sessions, at noon and 6 pm, in Marinette Wednesday sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to update the community on its investigation of the PFAS contamination from the Tyco/Johnson Controls plant. 

The DNR has planned six monthly visits to the community to hear from residents and give them updates about the PFAS cleanup. The sessions are currently scheduled to run through February, and more could follow if local residents want, said Christine Haag, the DNR’s remediation and redevelopment director.

PFAS is the shorthand used for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of chemicals found in thousands of consumer products and other materials, from firefighting foam to Teflon to carpeting to countless other everyday items.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, eating or drinking food or water containing PFAS chemicals over a period of time allows their concentration in the body to increase. PFAS exposure has been blamed for reproductive and developmental effects and is suspected of being a hazard to the liver, kidneys, and the immune system. Among humans, PFAS chemicals are associated with higher cholesterol levels, and certain groups of PFAS may cause tumors, lower infant birth weights, immune-system effects, cancer, and thyroid problems.

PFAS pollution is at the center of the new movie Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo as Ohio lawyer Rob Bilott, who successfully sued Dupont for its dumping of PFOA, a PFAS variant, at a plant in West Virginia.

Responding to PFAS pollution incidents not only in Marinette but in Madison and Rhinelander, Gov. Tony Evers has appointed a task force to study and recommend action on the issue, while the DNR has established a technical advisory team as well.

Kaul is among a group of attorneys general from several states who have written the Environmental Protection Agency urging it to designate PFAS chemicals as hazardous. He noted that a measure to do that was recently struck from a federal defense-funding bill and said he hoped it would be revived.

“I think the federal government could be doing a lot more to address PFAS,” he told the Examiner. “This is an issue that impacts folks around the country. It’s an area where I would like to see the federal government step up and take a role, including research.”

Kaul declined to say whether there was a specific prospect of litigation arising from the case, including whether the state would join with others in a class action lawsuit over PFAS contamination. In the Examiner interview, he acknowledged the already public information that the DNR has referred to his office the question of whether the company could be sued for failing to disclose the contamination sooner. But he declined to comment specifically on that or any other potential investigation or litigation arising from the contamination. Direct comments, he said, could jeopardize both the strategy and the integrity of an investigation.

Speaking generally, Kaul said, in such cases staffers review relevant documents, assess whether there’s been a violation of law, and then decide whether to launch a formal investigation. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has the option of filing a lawsuit or negotiating a settlement without going to court.

At the listening session, Kaul described the DOJ’s work briefly, then invited members of the audience to speak about their experiences with the contamination.

“It’s helpful to know how does it affect you directly,” Kaul said. “Has it forced you to change the way that you go about your day to day life? What has it required you to do to make sure that the water you’re drinking is clean? Has it affected other activities that you participate in? I know that the answer to a lot of those questions is ‘yes,’ but to hear the details is helpful to us.”

DOJ staffers, he said, would take notes and would welcome follow-up inquiries from residents.

Many of the audience members took aim at Johnson Controls and its predecessor Tyco over its handling of the problem in Marinette.

“JCI—Shame! Shame! Shame on you!,” said Marinette resident Cindy Boyle, addressing company representatives staffing an information table. Boyle said she and her husband own property that has been contaminated. “That puts our financial future at severe risk,” she said. “But I’m worried about our health.”

Former Marinette Mayor Doug Oitzinger read from an open letter to the company that he distributed at the meeting. Although years earlier the first lawsuits had been filed over PFAS chemicals and industry had begun to move away from using them, “you discovered massive PFAS contamination at your Fire Technology Center in October 2013,” Oitzinger said. “You retested and confirmed your results in April 2014. You told no one!”

Oitzinger called on the company to undertake a variety of remedies without waiting for the DNR, including establishing a health fund to research treatments for PFAS exposure to aggressively investigating whether municipal treated sewage sludge spread on local farm fields contained PFAS chemicals.

Some speakers also raised the issue of the Michigan Back Forty Mine, which critics warn could pollute the Menominee River and contaminate waterways in  Wisconsin, and urged Kaul to act on the out-of-state project. Kaul confirmed his office had been watching the issue and expressed confidence in Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, as a strong environmental advocate.

Several who spoke about the Marinette PFAS contamination described clusters of thyroid cancer, a condition that some researchers have associated with PFAS exposure, as well as other forms of cancer and tumors, in animals as well as people. One woman described two beagles who died before they reached the end of their normal lifespan, and were found to have abdominal tumors. “The vet didn’t know why,” she said.

“My daughter and my granddaughter and I moved back here a year ago, from Texas, at great expense, and now I’m thinking, should we be getting out of here, but we can’t afford it,” said another woman. Addressing state officials, she added vehemently, “If you do not look at the actions of Tyco as criminals, I do not understand.”