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Digging Deeper: La Crosse Well Contamination

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - Wisconsin is fighting about 30 PFAS contamination sites statewide, including two PFAS contaminated wells neighboring the La Crosse Airport.

La Crosse shut down well 23 in 2016 when they found PFAS in the water. Three years later, the chemical was found in well 24 too, and the city took that well offline.

Despite the contaminations recent discovery, the problem dates back nearly half a century.

"From the 70s and the 80s, the fire department used to conduct test burns required by the FAA in sandpits out in the fields by the runways. They'd collect these solvents then put them in these test pits, start them on fire, then put them out with firefighting foam," John Storlie, an environmental researcher with The OS Group said. "Well, it turns out these firefighting foams have this compound PFAS."

With the start of the 2000s came increased awareness about manufactured chemicals in the foam.

"Over a 20 year period, there's hardly been any significant use of Class B foams," La Crosse Fire Department Assistant Chief Jeff Murphy said.

The fire department began limiting Class B foam use, the foam that has PFAS, to only when absolutely necessary, like when there's a liquid-fueled fire.

"Unfortunately we're not able to just use water to extinguish these fires. An airplane can have four to seven thousand gallons of fuel on it, a railcar can have 30 thousand gallons of fuel. To put it out we have to use firefighting foam," La Crosse Fire Department Captain Greg Temp said. "The foam forms a blanket on top of the material, puts it out and extinguishes the fire."

There is a health risk down the road when using PFAS based foam, but firefighters say they have to make tough calls when lives are at risk right in front of them.

"If you have a significant fire where you're using the class B foams, you already have a hazard that you're trying to deal with," Assistant Chief Murphy said. "So it's dealing with the worse of two evils."

The La Crosse Fire Department is taking other steps to cut back on the hazardous foam.

"The training foam is biodegradable, it doesn't contain the fluorocarbons, the forever chemicals that we're concerned about for the environment," Captain Temp said.

The city of La Crosse is also stepping up to do extended water testing with the help of The OS Group.

"We're putting in monitoring wells around these old test burn pits, as well as upstream from wells 23 and 24, and then we'll be checking the groundwater to see what the levels of PFAs contamination are," Storlie said.

The testing still needs approval from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, but ultimately, La Crosse bears the burden to make sure everyone living locally has safe drinking water.

"The city is the responsible party because the city owns the property," Storlie said. "The city fire department and the airport operations caused the contamination, and then ultimately, the city municipality owns the water well and has the responsibility to deliver safe water."

According to current recommendations, the city is providing safe water by taking the wells contaminated offline proactively.

"The water's safe to drink. It is not above any established standards," Storlie said.

"Our two biggest concerns from our department of health services are people that are eating fish that are contaminated with PFAs. The other thing is drinking PFAs contaminated water," Wisconsin DNR Administrator Jim Zellmer said.

Unfortunately, there aren't good solutions quite yet.

"For the foreseeable future, this is going to be an issue that we'll be working on," Zellmer said.

For now, the city and the state will have to work together to learn more about PFAS and how they might be putting the public's health at risk.

"There's always risk in anything we do. So the question is, what is the acceptable risk?" Storlie said.

The city originally drew up their water testing plan this fall. The DNR sent it back asking them to create a more extensive strategy. That new design is due in late January 2020.

For water testing information independent of the city's proposal, click here for resources through the Wisconsin Department of Health.

For more background on what PFAS are, read part one of this story: Digging Deeper: PFAS Water Contamination


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Amber Meyer

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