A PFAS advisory sign along Starkweather Creek. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Department of Health Services (DHS) have placed 47 private wells in and around the Oneida County Town of Stella under health advisories due to the presence of harmful chemicals known as PFAS.
In January, the DNR announced that after one well in the area was randomly sampled for the compounds, which are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the environment, dozens more wells were tested, uncovering 24 contaminated wells in the area.
An expansion of the testing area 2.5 miles from the town hall this spring resulted in even more contaminated wells. Since January, the DNR has tested samples from 98 wells in the area and 16 other residents conducted their own testing, according to a DNR news release.
PFAS have been linked to certain types of cancer and other harmful health effects. The chemicals have been used for years in products such as firefighting foams and fast food wrappers, as well as household goods such as nonstick pans. The testing conducted around Stella since January has found 39 wells with PFAS levels higher than guidelines recommended by DHS and 26 wells with PFAS present but at less than the level DHS says is harmful.
For two compounds in the PFAS family, PFOA and PFOS, DHS guidelines state that levels of the chemicals in groundwater higher than 20 parts per trillion is harmful to health. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of creating new rules that would state levels of those two compounds higher than four parts per trillion is harmful.
At a Tuesday morning media briefing, DNR staff said the agency hasn’t compared the results of the Stella testing to the proposed EPA standard.
The DNR has been offering alternative sources of drinking water to affected residents in Stella.
At the media briefing, DNR staff said the agency has still not determined what is causing the contamination.
“At this time, we have not identified a source of this contamination but continue our review of available information to help us understand potential sources,” Steve Elmore, director of the DNR drinking water and groundwater bureau, said. “Potential sources for PFAS may include fire training and fire response sites, land spreading of municipal biosolids and industrial sludges, airports, military installations, industrial sites such as paper mills and metal finishers and accidental releases such as spills.”
DNR staff said that affected residents may be eligible for a grant program funded by the federal American Rescue Plan that compensates them for the costs to replace their well or install additional treatment.
Elmore added that in some cases the levels of PFAS are so high around Stella that additional treatment on residents’ well water may not be effective at lowering the amount of contamination below the DHS guidelines.
“The levels are high enough in this drinking water there that there isn’t readily available treatment to treat it at some of the high levels we’ve been seeing,” Elmore said. “So it is problematic but we hope that with a combination of drilling wells into the granite and possibly the additional treatment, we can reduce the PFAS levels below the Department of Health Service recommended levels.”
As the DNR continues to test wells in the area and search for a possible source of the contamination, a bill to fund PFAS cleanup around the state is working its way through the Legislature. Introduced by a group of Green Bay-area Republicans — another part of the state that has seen PFAS contamination — the bill would allow the DNR to continue funding projects to test for and remediate PFAS contamination.
While the bill has worked its way through the legislative process, environmental groups have begun organizing against a provision of the bill that they say would weaken the DNR’s ability to hold individuals and businesses accountable for PFAS pollution they caused.
The DNR is holding a public meeting for residents of Stella Tuesday night at 5 p.m. in the Stella town hall.
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