By Shereen Siewert

New documents obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review show that some officials were aware that the city would need to address toxic chemicals in drinking water while a new treatment facility was being planed, but did not inform the public.

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. A 328-page report documented the new recommendations from DHS, which focus on protecting public health.

A memo that documented a July 31, 2019 project meeting showed a directive to consultants from Donohue and Becher-Hoppe to “compare Wausau well PFAS concentrations to preliminary EPA and DHS public health recommendations.” In addition to representatives from those two organizations, Wausau Water Works Superintendent Scott Boers and Public Works Director Eric Lindman also attended the meeting, the Aug. 7 memo shows.

City staff were already informed about the recommendation by attorney Lawrie J. Kozba, according to emails obtained in an open records request. Boers, on July 2, 2019 forwarded that information to Becher-Hoppe with a message that stated: “Not sure if you or Ken have been watching PFAS-PFOA issue, thought you may find this interesting. It looks as if they set limits according to these recommendations, ours and many other facilities will have to treat for them.”

The Becher-Hoppe project manager who received the email acknowledged the message in a subsequent response: “I was aware they were coming and would be minute but didn’t get this email. Thanks! I passed it on to Donohue too.”

DNR Field Operations Director Kyle Burton previously told Wausau Pilot & Review that Wausau in 2019 voluntarily sampled six wells, five of which showed results for PFAS that ranged from 23.1 to 27.5 parts per trillion, above the DHS standard communicated to the staff. A single test showed a level of 18.

But those results were not shared with the DNR until December 2021, Burton said. The public was not informed until February 2022.

A review of Wausau Water Works Commission agendas shows that members were advised in August 2019 that the city had been asked by the DNR to sample water for possible contaminants. But commission members were told that “wastewater organizations have recommended that we not test at this time.”

And minutes from an Oct. 1, 2019 Water Works Commission meeting show Lindman downplayed the risk by telling commissioners that “our history of testing is anywhere from 8-15 parts per trillion” – despite having June 2019 results that showed levels ranging from 18 to 27.5. Lindman later defended the assertion by saying he was referring to individual compounds, rather than combined compounds. Unclear is why he would have done so, as the DNR refers to the federal 70 ppt level and the state 20ppt level as combined PFAS, not individual toxins.

A review of Water Commission minutes from October 2019 to March 2020 did not reveal any discussion on the need for PFAS removal from the new system.

Source: City of Wausau documents

Meanwhile, plans continued for more than $132 million in upgrades to Wausau’s drinking and wastewater treatment facilities. Despite the July 2019 directive and tests that showed PFAS at levels exceeding the DHS recommendation, the city’s new water treatment facilities, now under construction, did not include plans to implement a filtration system necessary to remove the chemicals. Regulators from the Public Service Commission authorized construction of the new treatment plant and other improvements in March 2020.

Some city officials and other representatives around the state continue to promote skepticism regarding the risk of PFAS including Lindman, who replied to an email from Wausau Pilot & Review that again focused on DNR, rather than DHS, recommendations.

“None of the numbers you reference are requirements or limits, only proposals/recommendations by DHS to the DNR,” Lindman wrote. “Our direction comes from the DNR and we wait for their direction as our regulatory agency, DHS has no regulatory authority and they do not communicate with us directly.”

Health advisories are not regulatory and are not enforceable, but are intended to provide guidance to state regulators and health officials.

So far the Natural Resources Board has declined to adopt the advisory and instead set a regulatory standard at a much higher level for PFAS, 70 ppt, which may have contributed to skepticism about the severity of the situation in the city.

Wisconsin Rural Water Association releases talking points for municipalities, downplays PFAS issue

Other documents suggest a potential basis for Lindman’s response to the issue. The Wisconsin Rural Water Association responded to the DHS advisory by sending a July 24, 2019 alert to members advising them not to test for PFAS, referencing the “potential high cost to municipal utilities of complying” with PFAS standards.

The WRWA alert also spelled out talking points and “recommended media response(s)” that caution municipalities without a known source of concentrated PFAS contamination: “do not conduct sampling and analysis for PFAS compounds at this time.”

The letter goes on to say that municipal wastewater treatment facilities are not original sources of PFAS and “do not have the capability to remove PFAS during the treatment process.”

A “recommended media response” for municipalities states: “If you are asked for comment by the press or customers in the short term, we recommend the following response: ‘We are in the process of evaluating the Department of Natural Resources’ request. We have not made a commitment as to sampling at our facility at this time. We will continue to work with the Department on a long term response to this issue.’

Additional talking points from WRWA echo those of Lindman’s past statements, stressing the organization’s view that the DHS recommended standard “needs further review” and that PFAS is a “national issue, not a state issue.” The group also stresses that the DHS recommended groundwater standard of 20 ppt and the preventive action limit of 2 ppt are “significantly more stringent than the EPA’s health advisory of 70 ppt.” The talking points memo was shared with Water Commission members in 2019.

New recommended standards are expected from the EPA before the end of the year and some experts are predicting a standard much lower than previously anticipated. In June, the EPA announced that PFAS are far more toxic than previously thought, prompting a sharp shift in advisory levels for public health.

Then, Radhika Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, announced the proposed new contaminant levels at the Third Annual National PFAS Meeting in North Carolina. The meeting was attended by scientists and community members from areas dealing with PFAS contamination who applauded when the announcement was made.

The agency sent four draft scientific documents on the two most commonly-cited “forever chemicals,” PFOA and PFOS, to its Science Advisory Board, including a finding that PFOA likely causes cancer, even at much lower levels than earlier advisories warned. The more than 400 studies cited prompted the EPA to lower interim health advisory levels for lifetime exposure from a combined 70 parts per trillion to .004 ppt for PFOA and .02 ppt for PFOS.

“Near zero. Near zero,” Fox said, according to a News & Observer report.

The EPA’s latest information appears to back up state health officials’ and scientists’ concerns. Fox said the agency is now working toward an enforceable standard for those two chemicals that will likely be proposed later this year.

But the WRWA’s position has not changed, said Chris Groh, the organization’s executive director. 

“So, how do thousands of water systems test, treat and keep the water safe for their customers?” Groh told Wausau Pilot & Review. “Right now, Wisconsin’s water is safe, tested and monitored to be some of the best water in the United States.  Water systems across the state have overcome every obstacle to providing safe clean water, and we will overcome the PFAS issue.  It’s just that common sense and science facts are being severely questioned and sometimes ignored.”

The Wausau Water Works Commission in June approved implementing granular activated carbon (GAC) technology in city’s filtration system in response to PFAS discovered in all six of the city’s drinking water wells. The GAC technology, cited as a long-term solution for PFAS contamination in the city’s drinking water, would take 18-24 months to complete.

The funding plan, presented by Ehlers Public Finance Advisors firm, shows the estimated cost of the project at $16 million, with $5 million each in potential congressional funding for fiscal year 2023 and the Wisconsin’s Safe Drinking Water Loan Program.

Despite the new evidence from the EPA and subsequent push to add PFAS removal technology to Wausau’s drinking water treatment facility, the city’s Public Works Director continues to suggest that no safety issues are at hand.

“Wausau’s water has and continues to meet all state and federal safe drinking water standards,” Lindman said.