By Shereen Siewert

Despite spending more than $120 million on upgrades to Wausau’s drinking and wastewater treatment facilities, the new operation will not remove chemicals in water that state health officials on Tuesday confirmed carries health risks to residents.

During a special meeting of Wausau’s water commission on Tuesday, Wisconsin Department of Health Services toxicologist Sarah Yang unequivocally stated that there are “immediate risks” associated with the city’s drinking water. Yang’s comments are a direct contrast to those of Public Works Director Eric Lindman, who issued a lengthy news release last week declaring the city’s water safe and saying he sends his children to school with bottles filled from Wausau’s taps. Lindman continued to downplay the concern on Tuesday and said the city has had “no action items” or “direction from” the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

But the city should not expect any such direction – because the DNR is currently not authorized to give it.

“We don’t have the authority to require corrective action,” DNR Field Operations Director Kyle Burton said.

When all six of Wausau’s wells showed test levels higher than the DNR’s recommended 20 parts per trillion level for specific toxic substances, those test results “raised concerns,” Burton said, prompting the agency and city to notify the public.

Not a new problem

Wausau’s water woes are not a new problem. City documents show that Wausau officials knew in 2019 that five of six Wausau wells already showed PFAS at levels exceeding the new recommendation of 20 parts per trillion for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Still, the city’s new water treatment facilities, now under construction, do not have the filtration system necessary to remove the chemicals.

Lindman said the facility design “left space” for adding that option, but it was not pursued at the time the plan was finalized because there was no standard to follow. The Environmental Protection Agency is developing a proposed PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for publication this fall, a process that has been underway for years.

City Council President Becky McElhaney on Tuesday expressed her dismay that the new facility will not address the PFAS issue. She also asked the group to act quickly to address concerns of residents who rely on city officials to protect their health.

“When I hear it’s an immediate health concern, and that’s what we just heard, we need to act,” McElhaney said.

Answering questions about specific health concerns, Yang on Tuesday said that residents should reduce the amount of city water they consume. The city’s PFAS information page echoes that advice for businesses as well, stating that water can be used for “flushing toilets, handwashing, and cleaning surfaces including dishware and laundry.”

“Employees and customers should reduce the use of water for drinking or preparing foods that contain or absorb water, such as rice, oatmeal, soups, infant formula, coffee, tea, drinks made from powders, or gelatin,” the page reads. “Use bottled water or water from a safe source to prepare these and similar food items.”

McElhaney and several additional speakers asked the commission to act quickly to protect residents on both a short-term and long-term basis. Former City Council Member Gary Gisselman also urged the group to take “swift and decisive action” and not rely on the idea that the water is “good enough for now.”

“We cannot be lax,” Gisselman said. “We need to show we care about our people.”

But commission member Joe Gehin, who once held Lindman’s position, pushed back.

“We don’t want to rush into anything that would cause an unexpected outcome,” Gehin said.

Gehin also asked whether the city could approach the EPA to shut down the well with the most significant contamination to address the problem. That well, CW3 on the east side of the river, is one of three wells found in 1982 to be contaminated with high levels of volatile organic compounds and is part of the Wausau Ground Water Contamination Superfund Site. State and federal officials say the groundwater and soil was contaminated in the area as a result of historical operations by Marathon Electric and Wausau Chemical. CW3 had a combined PFAS level of 48.9 ppt, more than twice the DHS recommended standard, in the last round of testing.

Jim Force, a member of the commission, asked the city to explore in-house filtration systems for residents as an immediate fix. But John Robinson, a commission member who also represents Wisconsin’s Greenfire conservation group, said that in-house systems could be too complicated for people to use correctly. Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian suggested that DHS could provide a PDF with information about PFAS protection to all of Wausau’s roughly 17,000 households to mitigate those concerns, but the commission took no immediate action to source in-home systems on Tuesday.

Instead, the group will direct staff to “explore” point of source treatment options for homes, businesses, schools and day cares.

There are also questions over who will foot the bill for any remediation efforts or strategies to address Wausau’s PFAS issues. Robinson suggested using money from the Wisconsin Environmental Repair Fund, but Burton said DNR rules prohibit the funds from being used for public utilities.

Kilian told the commission that immediate federal funding is on the table now to fund both in-house systems and a potential mobile filtration unit for Wausau’s water treatment system. So far, the city hasn’t approved either of those two solutions.

Communities nationwide are grappling with the emerging threat of PFAS and the likelihood that the EPA will issue a national directive this fall that regulates the amount of the chemicals found in municipal drinking water. Some municipalities are blending water from multiple wells to ensure a combined level lower than the recommended amount. But with all of Wausau’s wells now impacted, that solution does not seem feasible here, and Lindman said neighboring communities would not have enough volume to meet the city’s demand.

Most impacted wells out of service

In large part, communities are taking impacted wells out of service completely, Burton said, and finding additional solutions.

In Woodbury, Minn., a southeast Twin Cities suburb, officials in 2020 built a temporary treatment plant to remove PFAS to ensure the city had enough clean water. Woodbury had stopped using six of its 19 city wells because the concentration of PFAS had increased to levels that are higher than the state health department considers safe. Woodbury utilities manager Jim Westerman in 2020 told MPR news the treatment plant aimed to allow residents to meet summer demand and avoid facing restrictions on water use. The plant uses activated carbon to remove PFAS from three wells.

“We believe it is absolutely necessary that we have additional capacity in our system,” he said.

Activated carbon treatment is the most studied treatment for PFAS removal, according to the EPA. Activated carbon is commonly used to adsorb natural organic compounds, taste and odor compounds, and synthetic organic chemicals in drinking water treatment systems. Another treatment option is anion exchange treatment, or resins. High-pressure membranes, such as nanofiltration or reverse osmosis, have also been extremely effective at removing PFAS.

Wausau will now begin seeking long-term solutions and testing their feasibility in the city. The commission on Tuesday approved Lindman’s proposal for a pilot study for PFAS removal, in which the engineering team will prepare multiple removal processes and run them in parallel at the existing treatment facility to help determine next best steps. The group also directed the Department of Public Works to survey engineering firms, regulatory agencies nationwide and educational institutions that are studying and dealing with PFAS, and to evaluate options and operational changes that could mitigate the issue long-term.

Kilian asked the group to act sooner on the issue, rather than waiting for the commission’s next meeting on March 1, but the meeting date remains unchanged.

See information on PFAS below, and on the city’s information page, here.