EagleHerald Staff Writer
The publicity about a PFAS contamination stemming from Johnson Controls’ Tyco fire training facility isn’t the kind of news most cities or states desire, but the awareness might help prevent larger problems.
The heightened awareness prompted Waupaca Foundry to take soil and groundwater samples in 2019 while it was beginning utility work in Marinette on the island at the mouth of the Menominee River. PFAS was found in the sample.
“As soon as we knew that, we turned around and told the Department of Natural Resources we found some PFAS,” Bryant Esch, director of environmental engineering at Waupaca Foundry, said Monday.
“Since that time, we’ve been doing site investigation work and working cooperatively with the Department of Natural Resources and learning more about any PFAS that is or isn’t there,” Esch said.
PFAS—or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are chemicals used in a variety of products, from firefighting foam to nonstick cookware. They can build up over time and cause health issues, such as cancer, decreased fertility, developmental delays in children, increased cholesterol levels and risk of obesity, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.
PFAS is the umbrella term used for dozens of chemicals in the same general family. They’ve been detected in water, food, products and packaging, the EPA said.
Now the question is how much PFAS might be in the Menominee River, which opens into the Bay of Green Bay right where Waupaca Foundry is located. “That’s a super good question,” Esch said. “That’s the purpose of having a site investigation. You can have all these theories—here’s where it’s coming from and here’s the appropriate actions to take to resolve it. That’s what we’ve been working on with the Department of Natural Resources.”
When Waupaca Foundry opened its Marinette facility in 1974, PFAS wasn’t known to be a problem and it wasn’t tested for. Today, testing is routine in the Marinette area in part because of news about PFAS from Johnson Controls and Tyco.
“We’re aware PFAS has been a big topic in the Marinette-Peshtigo area. We assumed it had nothing to do with us,” Esch said. The results of the soil sampling were a surprise to Waupaca and to the Department of Natural Resources.
In July 2019, American Transmission Co. notified Waupaca it found PFAS when it tested the soil and groundwater at a transformer substation on the island. In the groundwater results, PFOS was detected at 200 parts per trillion and PFOA at 110 parts per trillion. The concentrations exceeded proposed enforcement standards.
While the Wisconsin legislature hasn’t passed limits for PFAS yet, the Department of Natural Resources is using recommendations from the Department of Health Services.
“As you probably know, there are regional impacts from Johnson Controls. We suspected it was from there. But as we got the data back, it was clear there was a contamination on the site,” said David Neste, hydrogeologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
In October 2019, the Department sent Waupaca a “responsible party” letter.
Now Waupaca is working with AECOM and other companies to monitor and address the issue. In September 2019, AECOM installed a groundwater monitoring well and collected soil and groundwater samples. The level of PFAS in the soil was below the recommended limit, while the groundwater sample showed 72 parts per trillion of PFOA, above the recommended limit.
When groundwater naturally collected at the Changeyard Returns Pit on Sept. 18, 2019 , Waupaca took a sample and sent it to Eurofins in Sacramento, California, for analysis using Michigan’s PFAS-24 list because Wisconsin hadn’t yet formalized its list of 36 PFAS chemicals. These results indicated PFOA at 490 parts per trillion and PFOS at 2.9 parts per trillion, which exceeded the recommended limits.
PFAS are known to travel in water, so the results raise new questions about where else the chemicals might be found in the Menominee River and Bay of Green Bay.
“What we will be doing is monitoring for a while to determine the extent and make sure it’s not impacting drinking water,” Neste said.
So far, the results aren’t alarming, Neste said. “This one’s not a huge concern,” he said. On a scale of 10, he’d put it at a 1 or 2.
Unlike the PFAS contamination found in groundwater requiring alternate water options for residents in some areas of the Town of Peshtigo, Neste said, “This isn’t residential. It’s municipal. Marinette monitors municipal water.”
Neste said he suspects the end result will be monitoring for at least five years “to make sure it’s not traveling beyond the boundaries of the site.” If it is, the Department of Natural Resources will notify affected property owners.
Given the location of the facility at the mouth of the Menominee River where it opens into the Bay of Green Bay, he said the Department of Natural Resources will look east of Ogden Street as well as at Waupaca’s facility west of the Ogden Street bridge to determine the extent of the problem.
“The next step is to monitor the well to the east of Ogden Street to see if the contamination is migrating over to that section,” he said.
The elevated PFAS levels haven’t been found in the immediate area used for drinking water, he said. “There’s not a lot of receptors in the area. No one is drinking the water.”
The foundry is within yards of boundary with the city of Menominee and not far from Menominee’s wastewater treatment plant. While the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has worked with Michigan on the Johnson Controls PFAS investigation, this investigation doesn’t involve Michigan at this point, Neste said.
“With this site, I haven’t really had any communication with the State of Michigan about it. If we do find contamination from the site on the other side of the river, we definitely would be in contact with Michigan.”
The EagleHerald has contacted local Menominee authorities and the State of Michigan about PFAS levels but hasn’t had its questions addressed. Foam on the Menominee side of the Bay of Green Bay hasn’t been fully explained. Some have suggested it’s from natural causes.
Exactly what the PFAS detected on Waupaca’s property stems from is difficult to say, Neste said. “PFAS has been present in products since the late ‘40s and early ‘50s,” he said.
“It looks like it’s coming from prior use of the site. There’s nothing the Waupaca Foundry is doing to release those compounds,” Neste said.
But according to Wisconsin statute, Waupaca is the responsible party. “Waupaca has to foot the bill,” Neste said. “They’re the possessor. We don’t know who the causer is. The possessor is the responsible party.”
Waupaca employs about 700 people at the Marinette site, where it make automotive parts. “Obviously, we’re a metal caster. We take scrap metal, and it’s all metal that otherwise would be disposed of. At Marinette, we’re using an electric furnace. We melt it and pour it into a sand mold. We let it cool, and then you have your new part,” Esch said.
“We’ve done a pretty intensive search with the Department of Natural Resources in our entire use,” Esch said. PFAS isn’t used in the metal casting process, he said. “We’re very confident we’re not the source.”
While some PFAS might be contained in old, coated or painted products, Esch said the company is choosy about the metal it melts. “I’m not aware of any study that shows PFAS is demonstrated in scrap metal,” he said. “The scrap is very clean, so there’s not much opportunity for PFAS or plasticky material to get into the stream.”
An AECOM reports said the first commercial use of the site was for a lumber mill 100 years ago. Then it became a dump for municipal waste from Marinette. “A good portion of that island was built with solid waste fill,” Neste said.
“There was a time when cities just dumped whatever on it and then filled it,” Neste said. “If you look at the way the areas of fill line up with the hot spots of contamination, it does look like the source of the PFAS might be those fills.”