MARINETTE—After three years of extensive research and seemingly endless studies, Johnson Controls Inc. has made a major breakthrough in its effort to eradicate PFAS from its property in Marinette.
Katie McGinty, vice president & chief sustainability, government and regulatory affairs officer for JCI, in a telephone interview Tuesday, said the company is excited to take the next step in combating PFAS.
“I think this is very promising that we have clarity and view as to one major part of the permanent solution to this issue,” McGinty said. “Together with building the permanent water line for our neighbors in the Town of Peshtigo, who have been impacted by the plume from our property. These two pieces together will get us very far down the road to our goal of clean water, a protected Green Bay and a healthy environment.”
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl) is a group of man-made chemicals that don’t break down and can accumulate over time (that is why they are commonly called forever chemicals). Because of their non-stick qualities, PFAS can be found in a variety of products including cookware, food packaging, stain repellants, dental floss, tents and firefighting foam.
Studies have shown that exposure to PFAS can lead to certain medical conditions, including kidney cancer and thyroid disease.
In the past three years, JCI has been busy collecting massive amounts of information on PFAS in the area.
“After three years of intensive studying and defining the problem we are now in a position to move from (an) interim to permanent solution to stop the PFAS pollution from our property,” McGinty explained. “As we look at the universe of data and analysis that we’ve now collected—10,000-plus data points that help us to understand exactly where the PFAS is and how it moves through the environment.”
McGinty said JCI now has a “very clear picture” of how PFAS has moved from the surface and into the groundwater heading east from its property.
“And all of that now enables us to pinpoint where the pollution is and to be able to go after it with source control technology that cleans that PFAS out of the environment,” she said. “We’re very eager and are working with incredible focus and determination now to be able to make this pivot from interim measures to the permanent measures that tackle the PFAS pollution at its fullest force and ensure that we get clean water and we can protect Green Bay.”
McGinty said the company’s research involved scientists and engineers closely examining soil and water in and around the fire training center on Pierce Avenue. She said it’s an expansive area of investigation that extended in a variety of directions around the property.
“That process is one of literally putting the pipes in the ground and pulling samples out, testing the soil, testing the surface water, testing the ground water,” she said. “The sum of all of that effort is a collection of more than 10,000 data points and reports that summarize all of that data.”
She noted that all the data collected is public record and has been shared with the Department of Natural Resources, which JCI has worked closely with as it shares information and obtains the necessary permits.
McGinty said the detailed analysis of the JCI property shows the lion’s share of the PFAS is moving east/northeast toward Ditch B.
“Because the pollution is concentrated in that direction, we can literally pump the dirty water out of the ground, treat it in a dedicated treatment system and produce clean water that then can be brought back in Ditch B to Green Bay in a positive and clean (manner) as an asset and a resource,” McGinty said.
That method (shown in diagram) is called “Source Control System.”
“This is not new technology,” McGinty said. “This is the proven go-to method to get chemicals out of water. It filters water, chemicals stick to filters and clean water comes out the other end.”
She said a pump intersects ground water, pumps it up into pipe and channels it in the pipe to the treatment system tanks where the carbon or resin attack the PFAS. After going through a series of tanks, the pollution adheres to the filters and the water emerges clean.
The PFAS collected on the filters is then sent to a licensed out-of-state facility where it is destroyed.
McGinty said studies show that PFAS that would have come from (Ansul/Tyco) firefighting foam that was sprayed on the surface decades ago has moved into the groundwater.
“The flow of that water, as you would guess, is toward the bay, west to east,” she said.
McGinty said the exact location of the system will be determined by JCI and DNR officials during the pre-engineering stage.
“(It will be) where you have maximum success and efficiency in pulling the water and he PFAS out,” she said.
McGinty said the company hopes to start construction in the spring and have the system in operation by late fall of 2021.
“We do want to thank the neighbors, many of whom have given us access to go in and take samples,” she said. “We appreciate the patience of our neighbors. We appreciate the partnership and the hard work of the DNR on all of these issues.
“We have many miles to travel for sure. But the efforts to date have born some important fruit that we can now begin to deliver the permanent solution to this problem and the comfort, the piece of mind and the clean environment that our neighbors deserve.”
McGinty said all the efforts that have been taking place—including free bottled water to more than 140 households and point-of-entry treatment systems (POETS) installed in 40 households—will continue.
“Those measures that we took immediately will stay in place as we seek a permanent solution,” she said.
She continued, “I speak for my colleagues in the company that we are just real happy to have this clear picture and a real clear game plan of going after and getting rid of the PFAS.”
McGinty said JCI hopes to present more information to the public as the progress continues.
As previously stated, PFAS can be found in a myriad of everyday products. In reality, there is no way one company is responsible for all of the PFAS in a certain area.
Regardless, McGinty said JCI is not shifting blame or pointing fingers when it comes to PFAS.
“We take full responsibility for our contribution to the PFAS problem,” she said. “With this data and a lot of science, we can pretty clearly pinpoint where we caused the problem and we own it. I don’t want to make any mistake here, we know that we owe part of it and we own the responsibility to clean it up.”
McGinty explained that different PFAS substances all have unique properties or fingerprints. She said that information is vital in order to get rid of the entire problem.
“I think it is important to understand where the full variety of sources might be,” she said.
McGinty has a detailed background in energy and environmental capacities. She has more than 25 years of public and private sector experience.
According to her bio, McGinty is a recognized innovator in clean energy and environmental protection. She champions technology development, sustainability and creative policies to solve tough environmental problems.
McGinty’s public sector career includes serving as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and as Deputy Assistant to the President (1993-1998), as Pennsylvania Secretary of Environmental Protection (2003-2008), and as chair of the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority (2004-2008).