EagleHerald Staff Writer
MARINETTE—The topic of masks, and particularly mask-wearing for students in the Marinette School District, was brought to the Marinette School Board Tuesday by parents during the board’s regular monthly meeting.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, three parents spoke to the board concerning the district’s masking policy. Brian Abeln, a father of three students in the district, said he has been concerned about a lack of response from the board to himself and other parents who have reached out to them on this topic. “It’s time to readjust the situation publicly. We as concerned parents and family of these students would like this board to schedule an emergency meeting of the board to have an open discussion on this topic. It’s time to allow our kids to enjoy the freedoms we as Americans have always had. It’s time to let them go mask optional,” he said.
He said he had put out a post on social media to see if others in the district felt similarly, and he said he was flooded with comments, texts and emails from all sides of the issue, as well as several phone calls, within 24 hours of posting. He said the general feeling among those who responded to him was that the board didn’t want to discuss the topic, and said some parents expressed to him that they felt targeted or that their children were treated differently because of their opinion on the topic. “If this is true, and I can only assume it is since the rules are troglodyte at best, then there needs to be an open conversation,” he said.
Abeln said from the research he has done, the topic hasn’t been discussed by the board. “Everyone sitting in this group are really good people with really good intentions. I know this because we’re a small town and we all run into each other, and there are a lot of good people in this room. I realized I was not doing what was best for my kids. I’m happy to sit with any and all of you and have the conversation that needs to be had,” he said.
Martin Shaw, a father of two graduates and one high school student in the district, said to him the issue is about more than masks, but who has responsibility over his children. “Ultimately, responsibility lies with me. Legally, I am responsible. Not the school administration nor the district. You all know the data has been unequivocally clear before the school year started that kids are not vectors or significantly harmed by this virus. You know you should’ve stopped this nonsense long ago,” he said.
Amy Beattie said her children were very excited to start school, however her and her family all have severe asthma and allergies, which she said has made wearing masks dangerous. “It’s not that we haven’t tried; we really have. But it is not physically possible. I get dizzy and I faint when I try. It is not fair for anyone who has any type of disability. I read the disclaimer that says you don’t discriminate; that is what you are doing when you are forcing students and parents to wear a mask when they enter the building. A couple of weeks ago, I was told I would be removed from the building when I had a question about my daughter. All we’re asking is that you hold an emergency meeting so that all the parents who have children like mine can be heard,” she said.
Since this was the public comment section of the meeting, board members were not allowed to respond to the comments made, however later on in the meeting Superintendent Corry Lambie updated the board on what the district is doing regarding masking and other guidelines related to COVID-19.
Lambie said the current number of staff with active COVID cases in the district are at zero as of Tuesday and four active student cases. The level of staff cases has remained zero for the last five weeks, according to Lambie. He said the guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) concerning mask wearing in schools has remained unchanged. “‘All teachers, staff and students should continue to practice physical distancing and wear masks to the best of their ability.’ Two paragraphs down it says, ‘All students, teachers and staff, regardless of vaccination status, should continue to practice physical distancing and wear masks at school and on the school bus until more people, including children, have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19,’” he said.
Lambie said the district’s insurance provider said that, from a risk-management perspective and to reduce exposure to liability, the district should follow any state, federal and local guidelines regarding wearing masks.
“Moving forward, I want to make sure we’re clear on this: On Thursday, May 13, the CDC released the guidelines that fully vaccinated people could resume activities they did before the pandemic, including participating in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physically distancing. Later on in that same document, they go on to say, ‘Important exceptions to the updated mask guidance include health facilities and K-12 schools.’ So that’s a heavy part of the reason we’re continuing our mask rules,” he said.
EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE—In addition to the adverse health and social impacts that paralyzed much of the globe, the nation and the State of Wisconsin for over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic produced a wake of financial hardships at all socio-economic levels as it spread through.
In confronting those hardships, and to prevent compounding an already serious situation, in March of 2020 the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) ordered utility regulators to maintain service to customers during the pandemic, regardless of bill payment. During that time, the PSC also supplemented various utility entities with financial support to assure they remained capable of delivering safe water, sewer, gas and electricity to their customers during the crisis.
That moratorium ended in April, but in Marinette, for water utilities, the disconnect freeze extended a month longer into May. Consequently, for some Marinette residents and businesses, as well as for the employees with the city’s Water and Wastewater Department and utilities, last week marked a difficult moment and the first time the department needed to carry out disconnections since the moratorium began.
In March of 2021, one year after the disconnect moratorium, PSC unanimously voted to allow utility providers to restart disconnection of service for nonpayment. The earliest those disconnections could occur was April 15.
In Marinette however, the water department allowed residents extra time before commencing disconnection. Residents falling behind in their water utility bills, received an additional month-long reprieve to address unpaid bills.
“We could have disconnected a month sooner,” said Water and Wastewater Business Manager Dana Weber. “But we figured we would wait another month to try and work with people as best we could. Now we are at the point where we really have to get back to getting people in the habit of paying on time.”
Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), the electric and natural gas provider for more than 780,000 residents northeast and north central Wisconsin, recommenced disconnects in April. Annually, each winter PSC upholds a utility moratorium on electric utility disconnects for reasons related to the obvious: the dangers of sub-zero Wisconsin temperatures.
Water utility does not fall under the mandate of that moratorium unless residents use a boiler system to heat their homes.
Weber explained that the process for water disconnects commences when a resident falls two months behind in bill payments that total $80 or more. At that point, the water utility department sends out a disconnect notice. The department grants three weeks from the time of notice for residents to make some sort of arrangement or payment. Coming out of the pandemic, the potential for a significant accumulation in unpaid bills reaches a high probability for those acutely affected by the financial fallout. But staff at the city’s water utilities is willing to work with residents who might be struggling.
“Our challenge during this pandemic has been to balance public health with the ability of utilities to continue to provide safe and reliable service. We are successfully doing that,” said PSC Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq in a press release issued in March. “I encourage all who are behind in their utility bills to contact their utility and work out a payment plan, and for those who are struggling to pay, to seek out available public assistance funds.”
According to Weber, Saint Vincent de Paul may be able to offer financial assistance. The St. Vincent de Paul website states that individuals can apply for various types of financial assistance that include funds to pay electric, natural gas or water bills. To contact the organization call 715-735-9100.
By law, utilities are required to offer a Deferred Payment Agreement (DPA) to customers unable to pay outstanding bills in full. If customers cannot reach a payment agreement with their utility provider, they can file a complaint by calling PSC at 1-800-225-7729, or visiting PSC website (https://psc.wi.gov/Pages/ForConsumers/LogAComplaint.aspx).
In Marinette, Weber said that in the case of a DPA, water utility staff ask for an initial down payment. But she further emphasized that they do not expect individuals to pay the entire balance at once. The bottom line is that people need to take responsibility for their circumstances. If they run into trouble, they need to contact officials at the water department and make payment arrangements.
“The PSC tells us that we need to treat everybody the same,” Weber said. “We really try hard to work with people and tell them they at least need to make some sort of payment … and then we try to stretch those payments out over weeks or months.”
However, as PSC serves as the governing body for the various public service utilities in the state, including Marinette’s Water and Wastewater Department, the department’s options for leniency does encounter limits.
Marinette Water and Wastewater officials understand that each individual has his or her own set of circumstances when it comes to financial setbacks.
“I think (the pandemic) affected everybody,” Weber said. “We try to work with people as best we can. We don’t like having to disconnect … it’s no fun for anybody. It’s upsetting to the residents, it’s upsetting to the staff … it’s not a good feeling for anybody.”
In light of her statements, she offered credit to the water utility employees in their efforts to help customers avoid disconnects.
The end of the moratorium offered no exception to those efforts. Monday night at the Marinette Water and Wastewater Commission meeting, Weber noted to commission members that, initially, the department sent out close to 400 disconnect notices throughout the city when the moratorium ended. Through the staff’s hard work, the department succeeded in narrowing that number down to about 50 disconnects, which occurred last week.
“(Water utility staff) did really well working with residents trying to get people set up with payment arrangements,” she said.
EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE—In March, the EagleHerald reported on the submittal of a proposal to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that outlined a project known as the groundwater extraction and treatment system (GETS). The proposal addresses a region of chemical contamination in the City of Marinette caused by Tyco Fire Products LP, a subsidiary of Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI/Tyco).
In a letter dated Tuesday (May 18), the DNR granted conditional approval of that proposed system.
The system works to address a highly concentrated region of PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) contamination that lies at the center of a much larger plume of PFAS-contaminated groundwater extending throughout much of the Marinette municipality and the Town of Peshtigo (TOP).
PFAS comprise a family of manmade chemicals utilized in various industrial and consumer products and favored for their special properties. More importantly, scientific evidence links PFAS exposure to several adverse human health effects, including cancer.
The contamination and subsequent GETS remediation proposal both stem from historic operations by Tyco. For decades, runoff from Tyco’s outdoor fire suppression testing facility, known as the Fire Technology Center (FTC), resulted in the seepage of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) into the environment. PFAS serves as the constituent ingredient in AFFF, impart the foam with its special properties and effectiveness on flammable liquid fires.
GETS will consist of a series of nine wells strategically positioned along a Marinette stormwater artery known as Ditch B. The ditch crosses—or parallels—the FTC property, before emptying into the Bay of Green Bay.
According to Alyssa Sellwood, DNR project manager, Division of Environmental Management, Remediation and Redevelopment, the system functions more in reducing contamination of the bay than in preventing it, but she also added that the reduction is significant.
The system achieves that goal by intercepting the contaminated upwell of groundwater before it can reach Ditch B.
“This (approved proposal) is a major step forward in our effort to clean up the PFAS from our property,” said Katie McGinty, JCI vice president & chief sustainability, government and regulatory affairs officer. “We are very pleased with this green light for us to get out there, and get going, in getting rid of the PFAS. And we are enormously grateful for the support and the significant vote of confidence from the DNR … this is one of the most comprehensive undertakings in tackling PFAS anywhere in the country.”
THE NUANCE OF TIME AND NUMBERS
Some area residents disagree.
“Tyco is trying to race to a conclusion … race to putting a fence around their liability and saying, ‘that’s it we are done now,’” said Doug Oitzinger, a member of the Marinette City Council and active in the clean water action group, Save Our Water (SOH2).
Oitzinger also represents Marinette’s Ward 3, which lies in the contamination plume.
According to McGinty, the majority (95%) of PFAS is “concentrated in the heart of the plume,” which extends east of FTC property to Ditch B.
“The system is designed to draw 95% of the PFAS mass out of that plume,” she emphasized. “(The system) is big and it is robust and we are going to drive it as hard and fast as we can without upsetting the water table.”
A public relations campaign conducted by JCI/Tyco in March distributed information about the system to the community, media and city officials. It outlined the operation and effectiveness of the system and also echoed McGinty’s statement that the GETS “eliminates +95% of PFAS in groundwater.”
The remaining 5% of PFAS mass is dispersed at lower concentrations in the outlying part of the plume that extends throughout TOP, to about 180 homes within the town, McGinty told the EagleHerald. That portion of the plume also leached PFAS into several private drinking water wells owned by TOP residents. Additionally, another portion of that remaining 5% of PFAS mass also flows with groundwater beneath a large part of Marinette.
Despite driving it “hard and fast,” projected models reveal that the timeframes involved in reaching the 95% benchmark become significant—measured in decades.
“How fast we get there is totally going to be governed by Mother Nature (by way of) not upsetting the wetlands,” she said. “But make no mistake, this is a system aimed at 95% of all of the PFAS in the entire plume.”
During Wednesday’s PFAS listening session, DNR officials seemed to contend some claims made by McGinty and the public relations campaign concerning the system’s capabilities. Those officials informed listening session attendees that, even after several decades of GETS operation, a significant portion of PFAS mass will remain in the groundwater.
In a follow-up interview with the EagleHerald, Sellwood pointed out that within JCI/Tyco’s own 2,400-plus page GETS proposal, one of the projected models estimates that 36% of the PFAS mass within the focus area of the contamination will continue to linger after 30 years of GETS operation. That area of the plume is centered on the FTC and flows beneath the high school and the Community REC Center among other areas.
TOO LATE AND TOO LONG
Many who live in the more contaminated areas, like Oitzinger feel that the JCI/Tyco solution falls too short, too late and will take too long.
While he supports efforts like GETS to address PFAS contamination and feels it is a good first step, he emphasized to the EagleHerald that JCI/Tyco see the problem from a perspective that is far removed from those impacted by PFAS. He explained the company fails to recognized the frustration and potential risk to area residents that the widespread contamination presents. He said the solution fails to take into account many of the other consequences that may result from human PFAS exposure and also from the leaching of PFAS in, around and beneath homeowner properties. He believes the company needs to take extra steps to fund additional research into potential effects PFAS may trigger in the future.
“They are already telling us in their (proposal/report) that they are going to run this (GETS process) for 30 years,” said Oitzinger. “But after 30 years, (the PFAS) is still there (according to one projected model) … I look at this from the perspective of how it affecting me as a property owner and as a person living with this on my property or in my well … For the individual homeowner in this community who has contamination under their home, or in their well … (JCI/Tyco) have done nothing … If you are an adult living today and you own property that is contaminated you will not live long enough to see this cleaned up.”
Sillwood offered some words that supported Oitzinger’s sentiments while also recognizing what GETS will achieve. She admitted, that while the system targets 95% of PFAS localized in the land directly surrounding the FTC and results in “reduction and improvement” of PFAS contamination, “a significant amount of PFAS mass will still remain in groundwater” after 30 years. In her statements, she cited the GETS modeling that was included the JCI/Tyco proposal.
“Nowhere in the GETS design report do they (JCI/Tyco) speak to the fact that this could potentially get at and remove 95% of PFAS mass at the site,” Sellwood said.. “And there is no monitoring program to really test those outcomes or a timeframe put forth by which that would be accomplished. Thirty years is the current projection … but once we get past that, there really isn’t any more information that (says) how long (it) would take. ”
She emphasized that additional and necessary steps would be needed to achieve a restoration of the environment. She also pointed out that the system does nothing for the remaining 5% of PFAS mass lying outside the concentrated area.
“(JCI/Tyco’s) ability to capture all of that (PFAS mass) and to do it in a timeframe that is reasonable, and to make sure that they have actually accomplished that (goal), is not presented in a way that (the DNR) can (confirm) …,” Sellwood told the EagleHerald.
MANDATE FOR PRECISE AND OPEN COMMUNICATION
Sellwood also described the messaging to the public about GETS has been “inconsistent.” As such, she said that moving forward the DNR attached certain conditions with their approval of the proposal’s continued progression to the operational status of the GETS. Those conditions require JCI/Tyco to rectify discrepancies of past public communications that have resulted in misunderstandings among the area residents about what outcomes the system will achieve.
“They (need) to provide notifications, meetings and must update their factsheets to align with the things that they have presented to (the DNR),” she said. “(The DNR) is not speculating the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ or what happened to get to that misunderstanding. We are just saying that to proceed, let’s get aligned … so that what (they) are telling (the DNR) is also what (they) are telling the public.”
In line with Sellwood’s statement, McGinty underscored a JCI/Tyco plan to enhance public outreach and engagement through the development of a “community crew.” This effort will provide area residents a better understanding of how the system is constructed, how it operates, and a picture of its real-world impacts.
“Those will be opportunities that we will make transparently and fully available for our neighbors to engage in so that they have full opportunity to help us chart this path forward,” McGinty said.
TOWN OF PESHTIGO WATER
The larger issue at hand returns to the priority of how to provide a long-term, safe and reliable water solution to TOP residents who own contaminated private wells.
Both the DNR and McGinty recognized that GETS does not directly capture or treat the contaminated groundwater in the portion of the plume that reaches into TOP.
“As big and as robust as (GETS) is, it can’t suck the groundwater back from all the way under the (TOP),” McGinty said.
For that reason, she reasserted JCI/Tyco’s commitment to ensuring that TOP residents receive a source of permanent clean and safe water via a municipal water line from the City of Marinette. She also highlighted JCI/Tyco’s continued discussions with Marinette, the various ads in the newspaper, letters to neighbors and other efforts to continue public proclamations affirming the company’s commitment.
“We are 1,000% committed to designing, building and paying for that (line) as soon as the town and the city agree on the specific design that they want,” she said. “I think we have made it abundantly clear that we are good for all of the above and we have been urging action.”
But after about four years of dealing with PFAS contamination, frustrations continue to linger among TOP residents. Illustrating those frustrations, TOP Board Chairperson Cindy Boyle proffered an analogy about the irreversibility of the PFAS contamination.
“It isn’t like (JCI/Tyco) can take a big straw and suck out all the water that has already been contaminated in the Town of Peshtigo backward,” Boyle said. “That damage is done. That damage is what we are going to be facing for 30, 40 or 50 years.”