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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Rep. Nygren Helps Seek Peshtigo PFAS Solutions

Issue Date: September 23, 2020

For over two years, "sludge," the bio-solids portion of sewage, otherwise known as wastewater, has been stored at the City of Peshtigo's sewage disposal facility - the Wastewater Treatment Plant - in hopes that a place can be found to dispose of it at a price the utility can afford. Since then, the material has been stored on-site, while local officials waited for some state or federal guidance on what to do with it. Now storage space is running out.

On Thursday, Sept. 17, the Peshtigo Water and Sewer Committee met for over an hour with State Representative John Nygren of Marinette in hopes that he can find a way to get them help from the state to solve the disposal problem, or at least help pay for disposal.

Nygren, who co-chairs the legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee, had some suggestions, but cautioned it is very difficult to get a majority vote for legislation that allocates tax dollars to help only one district.

However, he suggested there is about $18 million in the Environmental Cleanup Fund that possibly could be tapped to help Peshtigo. That led to questions on the possibility of using state funds to build an incineration disposal facility in this area, rather than forcing Wisconsin municipalities - like Peshtigo and Marinette -to haul their bio-solids to sites in Oregon or Canada. There are approximately 30 other areas in Wisconsin with PFAS problems, but none of them have had their wastewater treatment plant sludge tested.

Present for Thursday's meeting with Nygren were Water and Sewer Committee members Dan Seymour, Fred Meintz and Tom Gryzwa, chair; Public Works Director George Cowell, City Attorney Dave Spangenberg, Alderman Mike Behnke (acting mayor during the illness of Cathi Malke), Alderman Archer Leupp, BPM Inc. General Manager Jim Koronkiewicz, and consultant Taryn Nall of Ruekert-Mielke Engineering.

They had met on Tuesday, Sept. 15 for a question and answer session with two DNR representatives, and were told that the standards for PFAS sludge content have not yet been set, partly because data from other wastewater treatment plants have not had tests done at their facilities. Despite a DNR request made to 125 wastewater treatment facilities in July of 2019, Peshtigo and Marinette are the only two utilities that have cooperated by conducting the tests and providing the data.

Until problems with PFAS content came to light, sludge from the wastewater facility had been "land spread" - spread as fertilizer on area farm fields - at an annual cost of about $79,000. Because tests showed the Peshtigo and Marinette sludge to be contaminated, land spreading cannot be done until rules are established, and then only if the sludge meets those levels.

For Peshtigo, disposal at the only two possible sites currently known to local officials would cost approximately $800,000 a year.

PFAS and PFOS are plastic-like compounds found in firefighting foams produced by Tyco/Johnson Controls in Marinette, and also widely used for years in things like Teflon cookware, car polishes, fabric waterproofing, even fabric softeners and some "to go" containers. It is called the "forever" contaminant because it does not break down by natural means, and has been determined to be damaging to the health of humans and wildlife. Among other possible connections, research has linked the chemicals to thyroid disease, decreased female fertility and cancer.

Currently, the only known way to destroy PFAS/PFOS is incineration at extremely high temperatures. Cowell said he knows of only two facilities in North America that can destroy PFAS - or that will accept it for disposal. One is in Oregon and the other is in Canada.

State and federal PFAS limits have not yet been set for other means of disposal, such as land-spreading the sludge or burying it in a landfill.

Nygren said because the DNR has determined that Tyco/JCI was the cause of the PFAS in Marinette's wastewater as well as various ground and surface waters in the area, the fire extinguisher manufacturer has been paying to have that sludge hauled to Oregon for disposal.

"I agree, the responsible party should fund 100 percent of the disposal costs, and they've cooperated," Nygren said.

However, Peshtigo's problem is that there is disagreement of who is the responsible party. "The DNR says JCI, they say no, so what should we do? I think the DNR has to continue investigating....The DNR needs to be more aggressive than they have been on determining responsible parties, and on lots of procedures."

Since Tyco/JCI has not accepted responsibility for the elevated levels in the City of Peshtigo wastewater treatment plant sludge, their utility has no one to tap for money to pay the disposal bill.

With no affordable way to dispose of its sludge, the Peshtigo utility has been storing the material on-site and drying it out as much as possible, while members of the Water and Sewer Committee and Cowell try to find a way to dispose of it, with assistance from Nall.

But now the situation is getting serious. Unless the utility invests significant money in a very temporary solution, they could be out of sludge storage space within a month.

Gryzwa felt even if the DNR or EPA came out with rules for PFAS land-spreading, it would be extremely difficult to find any property owners in the area to accept the Peshtigo sludge, in view of all the negative publicity on the issue. (The DNR people on Tuesday had said once the numbers are set they felt it would be suitable for ground spreading on fields used for forage crops and other crops not intended for fresh human consumption.

Nygren talked briefly on attempts by himself and Sen. Dave Hansen to establish a $5 million fund for PFAS cleanup. Their legislation had made it through committee, but did not get voted into law. Nygren said there was opposition from Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce, and even the Municipal Water Utility organization was against it. Legislators had been told that law would have cost one paper manufacturer alone over $100,000, he added.

He commented that even though there is PFAS contamination identified in 30 other sites in Wisconsin, "....it's really not hot bed issue like it is here!" He said that makes it harder to pass legislation, and suggested Peshtigo should seek help through the League of Municipalities, and perhaps point out that once the official limits are set, many other cities would likely be facing the same problems that Peshtigo has now.

Nygren said the issue has been politicized, and it doesn't need to be. He said even though he lives "in the plume" - the area with affected groundwater - he had been accused of being against cleanup measures. "I believe everyone wants the same thing - clean water!" he declared.

Nygren said he has asked his staff to look at existing funds and ideas for legislation that could help with the Peshtigo situation. There are possibilities for a fixed rate loan that could be paid back when there is a solution. Or they could apply for a Clean Water Fund Loan for capital projects with principal forgiveness. That money could be used to add storage area, or for some of the steps Peshtigo could take to compress the sludge further, which would decrease transportation costs.

Gryzwa commented that Marinette and Peshtigo are "hot bed areas" because they tested for PFAS. "If the other communities had to test, it would be hot for them as well."

Nygren said there are two main issues, one being to identify where the problems are, and the second get clean water once they have that knowledge. He added there has been nothing done on this issue basically because the legislature has not been meeting since the Covid shutdowns began. He said the governor had two main requests related to Covid, "and we granted both of them."

A person from the audience asked why the DNR had asked the wastewater treatment plants to do the PFAS testing, but had never made it mandatory when the only ones who complied with that request were Peshtigo and Marinette.

Nygren said the DNR has to get through its rule-making process, and one of the issues is that some groups are not reasonable - they want zero PFAS content - and part of the fear is that no one will be able to comply. He noted current regulations on known toxic substances are not zero.

However, he did not know why the DNR has not been more aggressive on making testing an emergency rule, which it could do on its own.

Spangenberg suggested the legislature, or the DNR, could consider reward and punishment system in regard to the testing. He felt Marinette and Peshtigo could and should be rewarded for voluntarily getting the testing done to assist in getting the data the DNR needs for its rule making, "but now it appears we're being spanked instead."

Nygren agreed perhaps something could be accomplished along the lines Spangenberg suggested, that communities that self-report could be financially rewarded. He felt that might get legislative support, and if such a law were passed it would encourage others to test and get the DNR the information needed for the rule making.

Nygren said PFAS is a relatively newly discovered problem, and Wisconsin was one of the leading states to get any PFAS legislation passed, but the rule making process has to be followed. "You don't want legislators to set the rules, that has to be done by experts," he declared.

He said Wisconsin had led in setting groundwater standards, and once they established that the main culprit was fire fighting foam they had set limits. However, since they did not want to take a way a tool from firefighters that could save a life, they allow manufacture of the fire extinguisher foams, and use when necessary, but with very strict rules on testing.

That passed, Nygren said, but the "Clear Act" that Sen. Hansen and others proposed, "had the manufacturers and the League of Municipalities freaking out," and the issue was dead. He pointed out there are 99 representatives and 33 senators in the legislature, and a majority in each house has to approve a bill before it will pass.

"I feel the City of Peshtigo has been held hostage by the DNR...and left us sitting on waste at exorbitant cost!" Meintz declared.

Nygren asked for more information on the "exorbitant cost" and Cowell explained one year's worth of accumulated sludge will cost over $800,000 to haul to the distant site and get it disposed of. Their total budget for the year is $1,080,000.

Nygren then suggested there should perhaps be a proposal to get the state to set up a disposal site somewhere in Wisconsin rather than having to truck it all the way to Oregon.

Gryzwa felt that could be feasible. He said right now, with nearly three years' worth of accumulated sludge to dispose of, they are up to almost $3 million, "and that would just be enough to get things cleaned out so we could start over again."

Nygren commented there have been numerous special cleanup funds over the years, for example to clean up after petroleum spills, dry cleaners, etc., and perhaps legislators would approve one for PFAS.

Meintz felt the idea of a Wisconsin-based disposal facility was perfect.

Nygren said he also liked that solution, particularly since it could benefit the whole state, "but again... what is the cost, and who pays??"

Nall said the Clean Water Fund gives greater principal forgiveness for projects that remove contaminants that affect human health, and felt it would be feasible for them to do the same for PFAS.

He felt the reason the other Wisconsin communities have resisted testing their sludge is partly that they did not want to get into the situation Peshtigo is in right now.

Nygren said he generally favors keeping government rule making closer to home, and one reason he is seeking another 2-year term after being a legislator for 14 years is that he wants to help find a solution for the PFAS issues. However, he suggested maybe the EPA should set the PFAS limits on a national level.

Gryzwa declared that would take time, and added, "Our need is not five years from now...It's here and now...As a community we cannot afford to pass this along!"

He said paying for the sludge would cause an 80 percent increase in rates for sewer users, and wouldn't really solve the problem. On top of that, they are in the process of replacing the 100-year-old main river crossing, which also has hefty price tag.

Nygren promised to help seek solutions, and cautioned everyone to keep in mind that Sen. Hansen is retiring, and whichever candidate wins that race, "You and I are both going to be dealing with someone new to the job!"

Behnke noted U. S. Congressman Mike Gallagher had been in Peshtigo and talked with him a week or two earlier, and had sent copies of some bills they had attempted, "but they (the legislators in Washington) are still sitting on them."

Leupp favored the idea of a disposal site in Wisconsin, and asked what could be done to get on that right away. Others agreed that should be pursued.

Nygren concluded that the Environmental Cleanup Fund might be the best place for Peshtigo to get some help, since there is already $18 million available for cleanup, and this is cleanup.

In a news release issued in october of 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said only two communities have tested their wastewater treatment plants for chemicals known as PFAS after asking them to voluntarily sample for the compounds in July. The agency says the majority of 125 wastewater treatment plants they contacted didn't respond to the DNR's request.

Only Marinette and Peshtigo submitted PFAS samples, according to Jason Knutson, the agency's wastewater section chief. 

"We continue to encourage people to sample and that won't change going forward despite this lack of response from many municipalities to this point," said Knutson. 

Knutson said the agency wants to work with local governments and treatment plants to identify and eliminate PFAS contamination at the source to prevent costly treatment of the chemicals. 

However, the news release states Chris Groh, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Water Association, which represents rural water and wastewater systems across the state, said they recommended their members refrain from testing at this time until the DNR develops surface water standards for the chemicals.

"Most systems are waiting to see what happens or waiting to see what the DNR is coming up with," the article quotes Groh, and said he added that there were too many unanswered questions as to what costs or liability treatment plants and local governments may face with testing. In an Oct. 18 letter, the association along with the Municipal Environmental Group and League of Wisconsin Municipalities said tests would not provide meaningful information "in the absence of certified labs and surface water standards."


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