Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources is taking steps to determine safe levels of two toxic chemicals found in groundwater.
The new safety standards, which would establish a specific threshold for how much of the contaminants are safe to drink, come as the two toxic compounds polluted at least 11 residential wells in Marinette from activity at the Tyco Fire Protection Products testing ground.
The contaminants, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perflurooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are used to make several products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. Tyco uses the chemicals to make the white foam sprayed from fire extinguishers. Companies worldwide have used them to make nonstick cookware, carpet cleaner and stain repellents since the 1950s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Scientists say the chemicals are particularly pernicious because once they seep into groundwater, they do not break down. Instead, they move around underground and grow larger, potentially contaminating more water sources.
"They're particularly challenging as a groundwater contaminant. They move readily through groundwater. They don't stick to anything in groundwater. They’re not easily cleaned up," said Steve Elmore, program director for the Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater at the DNR.
The DNR's latest round of standards for groundwater chemicals is both a standard agency practice and a response to several citizen petitions, including the residents in Marinette and the group Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger. The chemicals have also been found at the former Badger Army site near Baraboo, where the Army manufactured rocket propellant for several wars starting with World War II. The Army disposed of its production waste by burning it in open pits for years.
Laura Olah, executive director for CSWAB, said she is encouraged by the DNR's move to create safety standards and hopes there is more testing for the chemicals at Badger, where the Army is still doing cleanup and well testing.
"The reason we want to see testing at Badger is that first of all, these compounds are so persistent in the environment, they cannot degrade. When you read the literature, it's that they exist in nature indefinitely," she said.
It could take several years for the DNR to create official rules. It has requested a toxicology report from the state Department of Health Services to evaluate the toxicity levels of the chemicals, which could take at least a year. After that, the DNR will review the report and make recommendations for specific standards to be enacted.
Though the health effects of ingesting PFOA and PFOS are still being researched, scientists agree that they remain in the body after chronic exposure and can be harmful. Large doses caused cancer and damaged development, reproduction and the liver in lab animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Although the EPA has safety standards for the chemicals, states nationwide are beginning to create their own, more stringent ones. Michigan and Minnesota both created their own standards after discovering that the chemicals polluted residential groundwater wells.
Minnesota recently reached a $5 billion settlement with 3M to pay for water quality programs after the state alleged chemicals dumped by the company polluted the water of 67,000 people.
Last month, the DNR ordered Tyco to create a cleanup plan after the company spilled the substances containing the chemicals at one of its testing sites in Marinette. The company must also investigate how the chemicals affected drinking water.
Traces of the chemicals were found in 38 private Marinette wells out of 135 wells that have been tested so far, according to Tyco. Of those wells, 11 had traces of PFOA and PFOS that were higher than the federal EPA limit. One private well, though not used for drinking water, had a concentration more than 27 times the federal limit, according to the DNR.
Last fall, Tyco, which is owned by Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, sent letters to residents notifying them that their wells may be contaminated. The company said it has offered to pay for bottled water for all households whose wells have been tested. The company will also pay for, install and monitor localized home carbon filtration systems for the 11 households where the chemicals were higher than federal standards.
The company is required to submit their investigation and work plan to the DNR by Monday, which it is on track to meet, said Fraser Engerman, a spokesman for Johnson Controls.
"We remain committed to the community where many of our employees also live and work. We will continue the investigation as long as it takes and work with the DNR on a plan to provide clean drinking water system solutions to the identified homes," Engerman said in an email.
Marinette residents whose wells have been polluted are organizing a formal group to monitor the company's progress and may file a civil suit against Tyco, said Jeff Lamont, a Marinette homeowner who is spearheading the initiative. The group, which had its first meeting on Tuesday, has about 35 people on its email list, Lamont said.
Lamont, who is a former hydrologist with CH2M HILL, an environmental consulting firm, said while Tyco is focusing on safe drinking water, it should also acknowledge and address the scope of the pollution. According to documents the company submitted to the DNR, the PFOA and PFOS were found in groundwater throughout a two-mile radius under the city of Marinette. Lamont's well has traces of the chemicals, and although they are not above federal standards, he has stopped using well water, relying on bottled water instead, he said.
Engerman said the company does not do outdoor fire training or testing activities in Marinette during the winter and said it is examining how it might implement additional controls at its facilities.
He said the company has conducted two public meetings, provided its data and created a public website for the community.
"We are committed to maintaining an open line of dialogue with residents," he said in an email.
Engerman did not deny that a plume could be more than two miles wide, but said the company will work with the state to "better understand the location and extent of where these compounds are located."
Several people he knows in Marinette have had health complications they believe to be related to their polluted well water, Lamont said.
"Some of my neighbors here have had health impacts, have had some pregnancy issues, hypertension during pregnancy. There are a number of childhood development issues," said Lamont. The company should address its processes that involve producing and testing products that include the chemicals along with cleaning up effects from the spills, he said.
"A lot of us are here saying, 'Why aren't you starting to address the source?" he said.