EagleHerald staff writer

MARINETTE—Wednesday evening, a panel of experts in environmental engineering, sustainability and hydrogeology provided the Marinette City Council its first thorough debriefing on a large-scale environmental engineering project aimed at cleaning up a concentrated plume of PFAS-contaminated (see PFAS primer/other information) groundwater in Marinette.

Since 2017, extensive efforts to investigate the extent of the contamination and plausible solutions for its environmental remediation both remained a priority for many residents and city, state and industry officials. That year Tyco Fire Products LP (Tyco), a subsidiary of Johnson Controls Inc., began notifying area residents and Marinette officials of PFAS contamination that originated from historic operations at its Fire Technology Center (FTC). For decades, the leaching of PFAS into the soil and groundwater beneath the FTC created a large plume of contaminated groundwater that stretches under much of the city and neighboring Town of Peshtigo (TOP).

However, after several years of site investigation and design work, in conjunction with, and under the oversight of, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Tyco and JCI (JCI/Tyco) stand ready to implement the construction of an elaborate and sizable technological solution known as the groundwater extraction and treatment system (GETS). Officials with the DNR also attended Wednesday night’s presentation at City Hall.

“I think it is a move in the right direction,” said Mayor Steve Genisot on Thursday, after the presentation. “And I think the fact that the DNR was present and they are certainly involved in the process … is good. And again we want to keep working on the remediation of this issue.”

Backed by three years of rigorous investigative science accumulated during detailed sight investigations of the contamination area, JCI/Tyco Chief Sustainability Officer Katie McGinty informed the council that the system targets a “lion’s share” of the most concentrated areas of the contamination.

“It is a major piece of finally doing right on this PFAS issue and beginning to remove PFAS,” she said.

In May, the DNR offered JCI/Tyco a conditional approval of the 2,400-page systems design proposal, allowing the company to proceed with the comprehensive permitting processes required before they can undertake the construction of the system.

The GETS serves as one spearhead in a cohesive two-pronged attack on PFAS contamination in the area. The other spearhead includes the complete removal from the FTC property of PFAS-contaminated soil through the largescale excavation.

ABOUT THE SYSTEM

Known as the groundwater extraction and treatment system (GETS), the proposed plan includes the installation of a series of underground wells strategically positioned along a major stormwater drainage artery known as Ditch B. The groundwater surrounding the ditch represents the focal area of the PFAS plume, containing the highest concentration of contamination.

According to Kirk Graig, Project Manager—GETS Design Finalization Construction & Startup for Geosyntec Consultants, over 95% of the PFAS resides in that area of the highest concentration. It represents a portion of the plume that lies beneath the eastern half of the FTC property and includes a section of land lying just east of that, surrounding Pierce Avenue, which encompasses the high school, Community REC Center and some of the surrounding neighborhood.

Ditch B crosses—or parallels—the FTC property, before emptying into the Bay of Green Bay. Essentially, the wells function to intercept contaminated groundwater before it upwells into the ditch and flows out to the bay. Through an intricate series of pumps, the system ferries that water to a specially constructed building on the FTC property where granulated activated carbon filters out the PFAS before another series of pipes siphons the cleansed water back to Ditch B, downstream from its initial collection point.

Graig explained that GETS utilizes state-of-the-art technology and it focuses on three main objectives.

As described above the system first reduces the upwelling of contaminated groundwater into Ditch B and secondly, it treats that recovered groundwater by removing PFAS. Finally, the system’s wider impact will help to reduce the overall migration of PFAS through the plume. However, less concentrated areas of the plume reach as far as the TOP, leaching its PFAS contamination into about 180 privately owned potable water wells. According to McGinty, those areas extend outside the zone of GETS influence. She admits that addressing those areas will require a different approach, which is currently under discussion and includes the possible establishment of a permanent municipal water line to those portions of TOP.

“We are working hard to rally the troops and get everyone around the table to be able to get that job done,” McGinty said. “We are very excited about the GETS and soil (projects) because it is a huge piece of the equation, but it is not the whole equation.”

Craig underscored that the system’s design emerged from comprehensive investigations of the contamination area and the collection of over 10 thousand data points.

“These extensive data points have been used to inform the GETS and exhaustively make sure that the (system) is going to formally achieve its objectives,” he said. “This GETS is an extremely robust system that includes the most state of the art-proven technologies of removing PFAS.”

Moreover, he stressed that the GETS design includes built-in redundancy that allows for flexibility in operation as well as expandability, adding it operates with multiple layers of safety controls.

“This is so that we can accommodate potential future wells if needed or adjust the operation,” Craig said.

While the control center of the GETS resides on FTC property, the underground piping extends east from the FTC and then runs north and south along Pierce Avenue to Ditch B and south to the water tower. At the north end of Pierce Avenue, the piping system follows Ditch B into a wooded area where three of the wells will be located. Another well is situated at the south end of the Pierce piping near the water tower. Other wells will be dispersed through residential areas further east. However, Craig informed the council that the underground wells essentially run silent, posing no nuisance when it comes to noise.

DESPITE UNKNOWNS, IN FOR THE LONG HAUL

For experts like Craig and McGinty, whether the GETS can achieve its objectives is not the question. For them, the time to reach the objective empowers the biggest unknown and depends in large part on how the water table reacts to such large-scale pumping of groundwater.

“The cleanup could take 10, 20, 30 years,” Craig told the council. “It really is impossible to know right now. It isn’t until we get real-time data that we can get a better understanding of how long or how quickly the remediation is occurring.”

DNR Remediation and Redevelopment Project Manager Alyssa Sellwood addressed some of the projection models and the predicted timeframes included within the JCI/Tyco GETS design proposal. She agreed with Craig, pointing out that until the system is up and running, how it aligns with predicted models includes several unknowns that introduce a margin of error.

“Those models are somewhat preliminary, we don’t have all data inputs to be able to make those projections precisely,” Sellwood said. “So the real-world implementation component (of the GETS) really is the critical piece here. I think the important thing to note is that we have a very robust long-term monitoring plan that we are going to be taking a close look at and making adjustments as needed.”

Sellwood also reiterated that while the GETS promises a significant improvement to the PFAS contamination issue in Marinette’s groundwater, it represents only one step.

“We don’t think that (the GETS) is the only piece of the puzzle,” she said. “The long-term monitoring over time and the learning that we will do once the system is up and running will allow us to make adjustments and improvements and start to address (them) if we need to do other things over time.”

Over the years and after many discussions with both experts in the DNR and with JCI/Tyco, Mayor Genisot understands the logic regarding the timeframe of the remediation. The problem is big and spans many years. Additionally, the contamination involves other issues not addressed by GETS. As such, the solution will also be big, requiring time and many future discussions.

“The process itself will take years to resolve some of the cleanup,” Genisot said. “But at least they are moving forward … I think the council recognizes that (the contamination) didn’t happen overnight and it is certainly going to take time to clean it up.”

REAFFIRMED COMMITMENT

Finally, McGinty reasserted the commitment that both JCI and Tyco carry for the Marinette-area communities. She told the council that JCI/Tyco aims to continue the implementation of projects that will take the appropriate responsibility for the PFAS contamination resulting from operations at their facilities in Marinette.

“We are proud of the business we have in Marinette and the generations of local community folks and families that have worked at our plant and the life-saving work that they do,” McGinty said. “We are proud residents of this community and we are grateful for the opportunity to be part of that community.”

More specifically, she emphasized how JCI/Tyco would address future burdens that PFAS-contamination might impart to planned projects within the City of Marinette.

“We have made clear to the mayor and I have spoken publicly, and I will say it again, if this city encounters issues to potentially incur additional costs around the treatment of groundwater in infrastructure projects … that is our (JCI/Tyco’s) responsibility, and we own it.”