EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE—Enduring almost four years of frustration over what some criticize as slow progress forward on the implementation of a permanent solution for clean and safe drinking water in the Town of Peshtigo (TOP), during the town’s inaugural meeting of the TOP Water Committee a quorum of the town board of supervisors took steps last week to start the ball rolling.
Wednesday, supervisors at the meeting voted unanimously, authorizing chairperson Cindy Boyle to begin organizing a “water summit” of stakeholders (Water SOS) specifically related to navigating through the complex issues, mechanics and finances of establishing a permanent and safe water supply.
“I think the (summit) will be very rigorous and a lot of work but hopefully the takeaway will be some clarity on where the immovable roadblocks are, what they are and where we actually have paths forward,” Boyle said.
LONG TIME COMING
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, City of Marinette-based Tyco Fire Products LP (Tyco), began conducting sampling tests for contaminants known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on the property of its outdoor testing facility in Marinette in 2013. However, the actual contamination reached far beyond Tyco’s property. Tyco began disclosure to TOP residents of the potential toxic PFAS contamination of their groundwater and private drinking water wells in 2017, catalyzing the town’s long struggle to access a safe source of potable water. Following that disclosure, Tyco also began supplying interim sources of safe drinking water to residents (bottled water and point of entry filtration systems for those with high contaminant levels).
With the water summit, Town Board Chairperson Cindy Boyle and other town residents hope to streamline progress down a road that leads to more productive discussion and compromise among the various stakeholders as they work towards a permanent water solution.
“I am personally really tired of reacting,” Boyle said Wednesday during the meeting of the town’s newly established Water Committee. “I would really like to start steering this (process).”
Boyle, who took the seat as TOP chairman following her victory in the spring election, campaigned on a platform of clean water for the town. She established the ad hoc Water Committee as a critical advisory component for the town’s PFAS and water issues and to uphold accountability to parties accountable.
Of the many stakeholders Boyle hopes to engage in a summit, topping the list are TOP, cities of Peshtigo and Marinette, Johnson Controls Inc. and subsidiary Tyco (JCI/Tyco) and the DNR all.
JCI/Tyco (the responsible parties) also appear aligned with Boyle’s desire for some sort of facilitated summit. In April the company made a similar proposal to DNR Secretary Preston Cole in a letter from JCI Vice President & Chief Sustainability, Global Government and Regulatory Affairs Officer Katie McGinty. Cole directs the state programs for environmental protection, natural resource management and law enforcement.
“To support your leadership on this important project, we at Tyco, would like to propose that DNR engage a neutral, third-party professional facilitator that would work at your direction,” wrote JCI’s McGinty. “The facilitator’s services would be at Tyco’s cost and the firm chosen by you. We share your goal and that of Governor (Tony) Evers to make permanent clean drinking water a reality for affected Peshtigo residents as soon as possible and we offer these resources to spur progress that has been stalled too long.”
BOARD GAINS ITS FOOTING
The source of the TOP contamination centers on a Tyco-owned fire suppression testing facility, the Fire Technology Center (FTC) in Marinette. After decades of testing firefighting foams that contain PFAS, the facility’s contaminant saturated properties resulted in a widespread plume of pfas-contaminated groundwater that now lingers under much of TOP and Marinette.
TOP residents learned of the contamination in about 2017, and many—the town leadership among them—grow continually impatient with the delay, often laying the blame for delays with JCI/Tyco.
Since the spring election, progress on TOP’s PFAS front hovered on hold while a relatively new town board addressed some internal priorities, which included the recent acquisition of a new municipal lawyer. Moreover, the last few weeks allowed time for new board members to come up to speed on various environmental discussions that occurred under the prior TOP leadership.
A recent communication exchange between DNR Secretary Cole and JCI’s McGinty, regarding continued discussion and hopeful progress on the TOP water issue recognized the learning curve facing the TOP board and the necessity for patience as other interested parties allow time for the board to gain a solid footing on the matter.
“We are all aware of the change in leadership in the town’s governmental body,” Cole wrote on May 21, addressing JCI’s McGinty. “Our team has expressed to me, a need to work with the new leadership of the (TOP) to ensure they are fully briefed on the investigation and activities our two organizations have completed over the last four years. They may have things they need to have in place to ensure we all have a meaningful dialogue moving forward. We expect to be able to engage with the town in the coming weeks and see July 1, 2021, as a date after which we believe all interested parties would be able to begin a fully informed, facilitated conversation.”
About six weeks after officially becoming chairperson, Wednesday’s board vote, authorizing Boyle to begin organizing a water summit represented a big step toward that “meaningful discussion.”
“Six weeks in and we have hired a new municipal lawyer, established numerous working committees, received a comprehensive environmental debriefing and are moving forward with a water summit,” Boyle said. “That is progress in my book.”
TRANSPARENCY NEEDED TO END DELAYS
Boyle also addressed a significant lack of transparency that existed between the prior town board and the TOP residents regarding past discussion among stakeholders of a permanent water source.
“Something that I was thinking about before the election and every day since the election: it seemed that historically, from an outsider’s perspective, the lack of progress … was a lot of stalling,” she said. “It seemed like JCI was doing a very effective job at (pointing to) who the responsible stall was on any given day … We all know that the best way to cut to the chase is to get all the parties in the same room so that (it) can just be vetted out once and for all.”
When it comes to the need for a permanent water source, two of the primary stakeholders, JCI/Tyco and the TOP seem to be on the same page, at least in theory. But as the committee’s discussion revealed Wednesday, water is complicated and the specifics of any negotiation or agreement will need to be hashed out in discussions between stakeholders.
Earlier this year JCI/Tyco issued the following statement to the EagleHerald that addresses the complex nature of providing a permanent water source and their promise to provide that source to homes within a “study area” of the plume for which JCI/Tyco have accepted responsibility.
“Tyco would like to reiterate that we have been committed to providing a long-term, safe drinking water supply to the Peshtigo residents who have been impacted by the groundwater contamination coming from the FTC. Over 2 years ago, Tyco proposed connecting the homes in the Study Area to a municipal water line extension and committed to paying for its construction. To move forward, however, this proposal requires the consent and cooperation of local elected officials. We look forward to action by those officials and will continue to fund the legal/technical resources they need to inform their decision.”
TOO EALRY FOR WATER SPECIFICS
Dialog at the TOP water committee meeting inevitably turned to “legal/technical” aspects of providing access to clean and safe drinking water. Committee members pondered over how the financing of a permanent water source might work, whether that source results from connection to an outside municipality like the Marinette, purchase of bulk water or the establishment of the town’s own water district.
Town supervisor and member of the water committee Kristen Edgar touched on the tremendous responsibility that comes with establishing a water district.
“We have a town right now that has (private water) wells,” Edgar said. “We are not responsible for providing water to our citizens, (but) once we have a water district it is our responsibility to provide water. So (it) changes the whole landscape when you have a water district because then we have a responsibility of providing clean water.”
Committee member Jeffrey Lamont, a retired hydrogeologist, stirred further discussion after offering an overview of the work to come and the questions that remain unanswered.
For example, the costs and logistics associated with extending a waterline from a neighboring municipality, not to mention the continued maintenance of that system and whether annexation would be required.
Lamont brings 30 years of experience in geology and water resource engineering to the committee. He worked on numerous large environmental cleanups for the Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency and private clients across North America. In his professional opinion, if the town chooses a municipal connection, Marinette represents the most viable option. He cautioned, however, the necessity of town officials to remain cognizant as discussions commence of where that connection would extend, the associated costs and the annexation/non-annexation issue, for which some on the committee feel that JCI/Tyco should fund.
“It’s easy to lose sight of those kinds of costs unless you … understand them upfront,” Lamont said.
In the end, the committee refrained from digging too deep into the details, understanding those discussions need to occur at a larger table, one that engages all interested and responsible parties in an open dialog, such as Boyle’s proposed water summit.
“Let’s just find out what everyone’s appetite is, where the roadblocks are and, instead of trying to move an immovable mountain, let’s find different paths if there are some,” Boyle said.