EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE—A move by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) along the often politically and legally wrought frontlines of the PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) issue, hit close to the heart for Carly Michiels.
In fact, just about every new development in the fight to regulate—or eliminate—PFAS stirs the temperament of passion and action for the City of Marinette native. She serves as government relations director for Clean Wisconsin, a 501c(3) organization dedicated to environmental protection and preservation through the engagement of science, law and policy. A big part of her work involves advocating in Madison, for environmental and human protection against the adverse consequences of PFAS.
She feels that a recent court action by WMC impedes efforts by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource (DNR), the regulatory agency responsible for setting standards that regulate the chemicals used in industry and business.
In a step to block a specific method of sampling for PFAS from industrial and business facilities, the WMC filed a complaint to the State of Wisconsin Circuit Court in Jefferson County March 29. The complaint names as defendants the DNR, Secretary of the DNR Preston Cole and the Wisconsin Natural Resource Board.
While Michiels agrees that a critical piece to the PFAS solution starts with remediation and clean up, she feels, at least in part, that another vital piece to the puzzle lies with those individuals responsible for establishing the regulatory standards, enforcement rules and policies that govern PFAS manufacturing and its use.
“The biggest part of it is prevention and you prevent PFAS from … harming public health and getting into our public water by setting standards,” Michiels told the EagleHerald. “But you have groups like WMC standing in the way, bringing out every tool they have in their toolbox to fight any movement forward … I think that is a huge hurdle to getting any sort of remediation for people.”
And for Michiels, those impedances perpetuate the continued injury upon people in Wisconsin communities that are mired in the nag of daily concerns over PFAS plumes infringing on their private or public drinking water supplies or leaching into the states waterways.
“People have a right to know what is and what is not contaminated with PFAS,” Michiels said. “So with industry obstructing the (PFAS) sampling and standing in the way, is totally ignoring the problem.”
But the WMC comes at the PFAS issue from another point of view. As a business trade association, its website states that it remains dedicated to making Wisconsin one of the “most competitive states in the nation in which to conduct business.”
It views the DNR’s actions regarding sampling as harmful to business and industry operations.
WMC’s complaint asserts that an “unlawful sampling program” by the DNR, which tests for more than 30 PFAS compounds at effluent wastewater discharge locations of various business and industry facilities in the state, lies outside the purview of the department’s legal regulatory authority. Effluent discharges carry water away from the facility and either into the surrounding water ways or into a municipal wastewater system.
But Michiels contends that the DNR’s sampling program could better help in pinpointing PFAS sources. She said that when industry obstructs that process, it limits the state’s capacity to identify the scope of the contamination.
Officials with the DNR could not be reached. Additionally, while the case remains in litigation, officials with WMC declined to comment, referring EagleHerald questions to the language within the legal complaint document.
“Getting any sort of meaningful protection or remediation … for actually cleaning up this harmful chemical (comes through) sampling and identifying where (PFAS) are (originating),” Michiels added. “I think that all goes back to public health and protecting people from these harmful chemicals.”
PFAS represent a family of over 4,700 manmade chemical compounds used since the middle of the 20th Century in a large array of consumer goods and industrial products. Mounting scientific research continues to expose potential links between PFAS exposure and adverse human health effects, including cancer.
THE COMPLAINT: NO CURRENT PFAS STADARD
The WMC’s complaint also addresses the burdens that the DNR’s sampling program imposes on the specific facilities from which samples are drawn. Those facilities hold Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permits that allow for the legal effluent discharge of certain substances on the condition that levels of those substances remain below a certain threshold.
The WPDES permits conform only to existing regulatory standards set in place for other pollutants such as biological, radioactive and chemical wastes. PFAS is not yet included on that list.
Since September of 2019, the DNR has been engaged in a “permanent rulemaking process” to establish enforceable PFAS regulation in surface water like lakes and rivers into which effluent wastewater discharges sometimes flow. The rulemaking process represents an arduous journey of meticulous research, community interaction followed by legislative procedures. It can take upwards of 31 months to complete.
According to WMC’s court grievance, the DNR conducts its PFAS sampling program to assist in the eventual establishment of PFAS regulatory standards. However, as it currently stands, no PFAS standards exist. And that fact serves as one of the principal contentions behind the WMC complaint.
The DNR does “not have the statutory authority to implement and enforce their program to sample for compounds that they have no standards for under state law,” the complaint expounds in the second paragraph of a 15-page document.
Moreover, the WMC maintains that because the DNR only samples the effluent water for PFAS and not the influent water (coming into the facility), its sampling program does not accurately reflect the amount of PFAS (if any) that would be attributed solely to the facility’s operations.
Additionally, the DNR makes a facility’s sample results publicly available, which fuels another WMC concern: The potential stigmatization of those companies.
“…As (the DNR) seek to publish the results of their sampling program, they are risking significant reputational harm to the businesses that are being unlawfully forced to participate in this (sampling) program, even those businesses that are in compliance with state law and their own permits.”
In accordance, the judge overseeing the complaint granted a temporary restraining order during a hearing on Thursday. It restricts the DNR from publicly releasing any sampling data which it collects.
In its efforts to efforts ensure Wisconsin businesses remain successful and competitive, WMC’s March 29 complaint represents only one of several discords the organization continues to express with state policies and actions regarding PFAS.
In a January press release challenging Gov. Tony Evers’ order to the Wisconsin Department of Justice to pursue “taxpayer-funded lawsuits against employers who process or use (PFAS) …”, WMC President & CEO Kurt Bauer called the move “unfortunate.”
“They want to sue businesses for the past use of compounds for which no standards have been set under either state or federal law,” Bauer said in the press release.
LEGISLATURE DRAGGING ITS FEET
Still, for Michiels, the solution remains the setting of official rules regulating PFAS. To that point, she cited various past PFAS bill proposals that either failed to pass or that became laws without much clout for enforcement. And she lays some of the blame at the feet of legislators in Madison.
“Wisconsin has one of the most inactive legislatures in the nation, right now,” she said. “And I think getting any sort of comprehensive bill on PFAS has definitely suffered from COVID-19 and our inactive legislature.”
Amidst the pandemic, the pause button remained perpetually pressed on PFAS, but Michiels expressed optimism for some specific items related to PFAS currently in the Governor’s proposed budget and in the continued DNR sampling programs and PFAS rulemaking process.
“It all comes back to resources and having adequate funding,” she said, adding that the upcoming budget plays a key role in acquiring those resources. “Groups like the WMC are fighting that process … We (Clean Wisconsin) would like to see some bipartisan support around those initiatives.”
Monitoring Marinette PFAS
EagleHerald staff writer
Marinette native and Clean Wisconsin’s Government Relations Director Carly Michiels, knows about the personal and community impact of PFAS.
In the Marinette area, several residents, some of Michiels’ family among them, live within a swathe of land that rests atop a sprawling plume of groundwater contaminated by PFAS. The plume spans outward from the Fire Technology Center (FTC) operated by Tyco Fire Products, LP. It originated after decades of outdoor testing of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) at the Fire Technology Center in Marinette operated by Tyco Fire Products LP. AFFF contains PFAS as one of its constituent ingredients.
Additionally, for many years in the past, and under legal permits, the FTC discharged its wastewater into the city’s wastewater system, resulting in the contamination of the city’s biosolids. The company ceased such discharge in 2019.
In a statement to the EagleHerald, Johnson Controls, Inc., Tyco’s parent company assured that it has since sealed its wastewater pipes and currently transports that waste to specially licensed and out-of-state PFAS treatment facilities. The statement also informed that the company spent $20 million “to upgrade the water systems at (its) Stanton St. facility (in Marinette).”
However, JCI’s statement also specified that “despite the fact that Tyco sealed (wastewater) pipes and no longer discharge any wastewater from the FTC containing AFFF to the Marinette wastewater treatment system, PFAS remains in the treated water and city biosolids due to additional (PFAS) sources (other than JCI/Tyco.)”
Any potential injunction or court ruling stemming from the March 29 complaint filed by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to Wisconsin Circuit Court Jefferson County, that might impede the DNR’s effluent testing of wastewater discharge from various state industry facilities will not impact the Marinette’s drinking water or wastewater systems.
According to the city’s Water and Wastewater Operations Manager Warren Howard, and the city’s website, Marinette continues to conduct both wastewater and drinking water testing.
Employees sample drinking water quarterly and post results to the Marinette website.
Results from last quarter (collected in December 2020) show that PFOA and PFOS remain well below the health advisory limit (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The HAL identifies the concentration of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water at or below which adverse health effects are anticipated to occur over a lifetime of exposure.
In Marinette, as measured in “finished drinking water,” results from December samples showed PFOA at 1.42 ppt and PFOS at 0.78 ppt.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), of the more than 4,700 PFAS in existence, PFOA and PFOS represent the two most extensively research and produced. They are used in the manufacture of carpets, clothing, paper products, kitchenware and many other consumer products. Additionally, as ingredients in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), their chemical properties convey those foams their effectiveness in fighting hazardous liquid fires. The primary manufacturer (3M) of PFOS, phased out its use between 2000 and 2002. Then in 2006, as part of the EPA’s PFOA Stewardship Program, eight major companies voluntarily agreed to gradually discontinue production of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals.
The most recent drinking water sample collected in Marinette occurred on Tuesday. Howard said the results of that sample will be available within the next few weeks.
He further pointed out that the next wastewater sample is pending and will be conducted at five wastewater manhole access points throughout the city and also at area industries, including Tyco and ChemDesign, Inc. Those samples include both the influent and effluent water sources.
In addition to state races, there will be plenty of decisions for voters in Tuesday’s spring election for Marinette County municipalities.
The Peshtigo School District has a two-question referendum. Question 1 allows the district to renovate the current middle/high school. Question 2 is for construction of additional athletic fields and other infrastructure and equipment.
PESHTIGO—All students in the Peshtigo School District are now once again learning in person within a classroom all week long.
With COVID-19 rates greatly decreasing in Marinette County, Peshtigo families who prefer their students to have in-person instruction and learning, now have their children in school for five days per week. Many students have had a tougher time succeeding in a virtual learning format in many content areas. Teaching and learning math concepts virtually was especially challenging. Math teachers in Peshtigo are glad to be teaching kids completely face-to-face once again.
Teaching virtually is a challenge for teachers. It was especially difficult for mathematics due to the sequential nature of learning math concepts. While teaching virtually, algebra teacher Robin Gilligan found that teaching online made it more challenging to engage and focus students.
While teaching students, she would “alternate between in-person students and online students to work out problems for the class on the screen.”
Gilligan would also ask individuals to “hold up their work in front of the camera” to see what they were doing at home to improve engagement.
“With virtual or distance learning, I would put out videos explaining the lesson, but I never really knew if students would watch them,” explained Math 8 and geometry teacher Shalaine Fisher.
She said that students would often ask for help the next day “on a problem I fully worked out in the video” the previous day which told her some students didn’t view the video she posted online. Fisher states that she can assess student comprehension much better with in-person instruction.
Teachers Janet Thibado and Gilligan team teach an algebra class together. Both regular education and special education students are able to learn algebra together, rather than separately.
“It’s difficult to make sure all students are making connections to the material,” Thibado said. “Mrs. Gilligan is a great math teacher, but I think she would agree that we make a great team.”
Thibado said, “It’s good for students to see there’s more than one way to solve a problem.”
Both teachers work together with all of their students, regardless of whether they are in special ed or not.
Gilligan states that seeing “grades improve and the increased confidence level of our students has been the most rewarding part”
Consumer mathematics is an applied math class for juniors and seniors. Teacher Dawn Waara works hard to teach math skills in real-world applications. Waara explains that “all of the topics that we cover during the semester can be applied to something they will use later on in life We apply math concepts to real-world situations that all students will face in the future.”
Waara said that topics covered in this class include taxes (income, sales, property), salaries, charge accounts and loans, investments, costs of home ownership and renting, transportation costs and vehicle purchases, savings accounts, and compound interest, just to name a few.
Peshtigo High School also offers five dual enrollment math courses all taught by one teacher, Donna Kalafut.
“I started teaching evening classes at NWTC and UW-Marinette to help pay for my children’s college tuition,” she said. “It expanded from there.”
Peshtigo students can now earn five credits towards NWTC by taking NWTC Trades Math and NWTC College Technical Math while earning high school math credits. Peshtigo Students can also earn 13 college credits through UW Oshkosh by taking Pre-Calculus, Elementary Statistics and Calculus 1 all while earning high school math credits as high school students.
Teachers are glad to see school returning to normal, with safety measures like masks in place.
“It’s so nice to have the students back full time with face-to-face learning,” Kalafut said. She added that in the virtual format it was “difficult for students to experience the contagious curiosity and camaraderie” that comes from interacting with classmates.
Waara agrees, “There is nothing like having the kids in school where they can collaborate with their peers and teachers. Being all together again certainly brings a sense of normalcy back into our lives. I’m very happy that we are back to in-person instruction on a full-time basis.”
“Even after teaching for 30 years, I still love finding new ways to help my students appreciate the beauty of mathematics,” Kalafut said.
Fisher said, “It’s really satisfying to see a student who has been struggling really understand.”
And Waara adds, “It’s a great feeling to see students succeed and believe in themselves.”