Damakant Jayshi

In light of toxic chemicals found in the city’s water system, the Wausau School District will install temporary filtration systems at several water fountains in schools until at least the end of the school year.

“The City (of Wausau) has informed us that by the summer they should have a longer term solution to the PFAS issue,” Superintendent Dr. Keith W. Hilts told the Wausau School Board on Monday. “So if we provide safer drinking water between now and the end of the school year, that would be our next step.”

The academic session runs until the first week of June this year.

The cost of the project is roughly $28,000, Hilts said. The plan does not cover Hewitt-Texas, Maine, South Mountain, and Rib Mountain elementary schools since they do not use water from Wausau’s wells.

“Dr. Hilts sought direction and we will move forward with the installation of the filtration systems,” Diana White, coordinator of communications and marketing at WSD, told Wausau Pilot & Review. 

Earlier, the district shut down all the water fountains in the schools within the city.

Wausau recently conducted voluntary testing of all municipal drinking water supply wells for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and discovered the chemicals at levels ranging from 23 to 48 parts per trillion (ppt). The levels exceed the proposed Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) future drinking water standard of 20 ppt, a level based on recommendations from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

City officials have said 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, even as health officials recommend limiting water use in Wausau. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Health Advisory Level is 70 ppt, but is preparing to roll out a federal drinking water standard this fall based on new health recommendations.

The district administration’s decision to shut down water fountains and its plan to install filtration system was questioned by some board members. Jon Creisher asked why the decision was rushed in the absence of any city or state ruling. He pointed out that the city’s drinking water safety threshold was between the EPA’s standard (70 ppt) and the DNR’s new one (20 ppt) – “and we tested at 30 (ppt).” Unclear is where the 30 ppt claim originated, as some city wells showed PFAS as high as 48 ppt and all six wells are higher than the state’s recommended limit.

Superintendent Hilts replied that the district took a short-term drastic measure “which felt prudent at the time.”

Member Karen Vandenberg questioned the rationale behind spending $28,000 for the new filtration system in schools, noting that everyone still consumes the same water at their homes.

City officials, however, have recommended limiting city water consumption. The City is already undergoing a roughly $120 million upgrade for a wastewater treatment facility, but the new facility is not equipped to mitigate PFAS.

Board member Lance Trollop defended the administration’s decision by saying that the short-term measure made sense since the City was looking into it. Had the problem required a longer term measure or annual budget, Trollop added, that would have necessitated a deeper dive by the WSD Board.