By Shereen Siewert

Five of six Wausau wells tested in 2019 after future drinking water standards were shared statewide already showed toxic substances at levels exceeding the new recommendation, city documents show.

But those numbers were not announced to the public until Wednesday, after a second round of testing was complete.

In June 2019 the Wisconsin Department of Health Services made groundwater standard recommendations to the DNR which included a standard of 20 parts per trillion for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, DNR Field Operations Director Kyle Burton told Wausau Pilot & Review. Wausau responded by voluntarily sampling six wells, which showed results for PFAS that ranged from 23.1 to 27.5 parts per trillion. A single test showed a level of 18.

Those results were not shared with the DNR until December 2021, Burton said.

Wausau well sampling results from 2019. Source: City of Wausau

“At that time DNR first communicated directly with Wausau utility staff about the proposed recommendations, and recommended follow up confirmation sampling which Wausau committed to proactively complete,” Burton said. “When the follow up confirmation sample results were received on Jan. 26, Wausau, DNR, and DHS began working together on the process for public notice and next steps.”

The most recent testing of all municipal drinking water supply wells for PFAS showed the chemicals at levels ranging from 23 to 48 parts per trillion (ppt). All wells were above the future recommended level. That information was released publicly this week.

In a news conference held Wednesday, Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who was elected after the first samples were taken, said she was informed of the results in January.

City officials said Wednesday they are exploring options to ensure safe drinking water for all Wausau residents. Mitigation efforts could include setting up bottled water filling stations at key points in the city or bringing in mobile treatment facilities, said Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman. The city is already undergoing a roughly $80 million upgrade for a wastewater treatment facility.

Dr. Sarah Yang, a DHS representative who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, said PFAS can stay in the body for years. Yang recommended limiting city water consumption, including beverages and food that take up significant amounts of water such as oatmeal or gelatin. The latest recommendations, Yang said, reflect the latest data on the risk involved.

An estimated 200 million Americans may have PFAS-contaminated drinking water, and state and municipal water systems will get help from the federal government cleaning it up under the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, said David K. McCay, chair of Mirick O’Connell’s litigation department. But more funding is needed, and many systems will continue trying to get it through lawsuits against companies that released the chemicals, and from ratepayers, he said.

Rosenberg said the city has been contacted by several law firms about the potential for a lawsuit, as some municipalities have chosen to do.

“That’s a policy decision that the policy body would have to decide on,” she said. “It’s not out of the question.”

Tony Wilkin Gibart, of Midwest Environmental Advocates, said the elevated PFAS levels in Wausau drinking water underscore why state standards to address PFAS contamination must move forward. The Natural Resources Board will vote on these public health protections this month.

“NRB member Dr. Frederick Prehn is a health professional from Wausau,” Wilkin Gibart said. “Community members in Wausau, Marinette, La Crosse and across Wisconsin need the NRB to follow the recommendations of scientists and health professionals by approving PFAS water quality standards.”

City officials say Wausau Water Works is not violating current drinking water standards and insist that residents do not need to immediately stop drinking or using the city’s water. The USEPA Health Advisory Level is 70 ppt.

Read our related story, here.