Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin met with French Island residents and area leaders on Friday afternoon to hear about the ongoing PFAS crisis and explore solutions, including a new filtration system that could aid a handful of contaminated city wells.
Baldwin started her tour by meeting with several residents impacted by PFAS — a toxic “forever chemical” that has infiltrated public and private wells on the island — and then toured a city well that is currently shut off because of contamination.
More than 500 private wells and three city wells on French Island, which is largely within the town of Campbell, have been found to have PFAS in them, prompting the use of bottled water and taking wells offline.
PFAS are being found in a number of communities around the state and country, and on French Island it’s believed the chemicals have come in part from the nearby city-owned airport, though an investigation is looking into other sources.
Earlier this year, Baldwin announced that La Crosse would receive an earmarked amount of $3.7 million to install filtration systems at the city wells that are impacted.
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City officials unveiled what those treatments could look like on Friday, saying they could be installed sometime in 2024.
There are a number of different options for treating the contaminated water directly at the wells, including proven technologies and those that are newer.
The proven technologies largely work to extract, or filter, the PFAS chemicals from the water.
Some of the emerging technologies would actually destroy the PFAS, though these methods aren’t yet to-scale with La Crosse’s water system.
The city, with the help of engineers with Donohue & Associates, has developed conceptual plans to build a filtration system for Wells 23, 24 and 26, which are currently shut down due to PFAS.
Plans have been made for a granulated active carbon filtration system, where materials that are high in carbon, such as coal or wood, would be used to remove the chemicals as they pass through. Plans for ion exchange filtration have also been developed, one of the most common types of water filtration methods that literally swaps out the ions in the water.
These filtration systems would be built in a new facility, and water from the three wells would be re-routed to be filtered before it’s sent to the main distribution center.
City officials brought the request for funding to Sen. Baldwin’s office, and she called it a “community initiated project.”
“These funds, thanks to this earmark, gave our city a big boost toward getting some of our wells back online, and helps our overall city water infrastructure,” Mayor Mitch Reynolds said. “Assuming we have some success here, not only will this help our community, but provide a model for other communities that are facing similar challenges.”
These filtration systems only impact the municipal wells and don’t address the more than 500 private wells which also been found to have PFAS polluting them.
“Private wells I think require a different type of approach in terms of being able to test and to be able to clean up their drinking water,” Baldwin said.
Her newest clean water bill, known as “The Healthy H2O Act,” would develop grants for communities like French Island to be able to test more on individual, private wells, and to eventually help remedy those contaminations.
“We have to confront this in every way possible,” Baldwin said.
‘We just need help’
French Island residents and leaders expressed frustration with the speed and amount of help coming from state and federal partners.
La Crosse County supervisor Rob Abraham, who represents part of the island and is dealing with PFAS contamination himself, said he was unhappy with the amount of funding the city was getting over the town.
“That feels like a slap in the face to the town residents. Because the city of La Crosse unknowingly poisoned our wells, but then they get handed $3 million,” Abraham said.
“That money ... doesn’t help anyone in their wells and in the town,” he said.
Residents and leaders spoke with Baldwin at the Campbell Community Center. They were seated around a line of 10, five gallon bottles of water, which the Lion’s Club will use on Saturday to clean potatoes and onions for its annual fish boil — yet another tradition on the island touched by PFAS.
The residents shared with Baldwin how much their lives have changed in the last year.
Theresa and Gary Koszarek described the struggle to remember to use their bottled water, calling it a “nuisance.” Theresa keeps a bottle of water on her sink to remember to use it when brushing her teeth, and Gary has had to stop gardening, which he loves.
“He had some of the best tomatoes around and we no longer can do that,” Theresa said.
Others described feeling fearful when they slip up and accidently use their tap water. Many of the residents struggle to pick up the five gallon bottles of water being provided to them by the state and have to ask neighbors for help.
Mary Wilder said she had to pay to put a filter on her tap because she can’t lift the bottles herself due to back issues, and doesn’t have in-house help since her husband passed away. She then paid to have the water tested one more time, just to make sure it was safe.
And many residents, such as Mary Wetterling, are wondering whether their health issues are a result of unknowingly consuming PFAS-contaminated water for decades.
Research into the effects of PFAS is still ongoing, but it’s been linked to cancer, liver damage, infertility, thyroid issues and more.
Wetterling, a former teacher who has lived on the island with her husband for 55 years, said she was recently diagnosed with a rare blood condition and that several of the neighbors on her street have been diagnosed with cancer.
“We don’t know why, we don’t know what causes it,” Wetterling said of her condition. She described the situation as “scary,” but said she and her husband plan to “finish our lives here on French Island, in our house.”
Officials shared that some residents with severe contaminations are resorting to hopping in and out of the shower quickly to limit contact with the water.
Residents are anxious to find solutions, and echoed the same message they have in the past: Help needs to come sooner than later.
“We’re doing what we can as a town, but the scope of the problem is so large and us as a small town — we just need help,” said town supervisor Jason Stratman.
Wilder said, “I think this is taking way too long for this issue to be resolved. I think in the United States of America we should have a better way of dealing with this than what we are going through right now.”
A pending water agreement
While the proposed filtration system would bring three city wells back online, a draft water agreement between the town of Campbell and city of La Crosse currently calls for permanently disconnecting them.
Campbell leaders sent their draft of the contract to the city in March and are currently awaiting the next steps. It’s unclear if the draft is in its final stages or not, but building a filtration system for the city wells contradicts part of it.
Reynolds wouldn’t comment on the pending contract, including on when the city may be sending the draft back to Campbell, but said there are benefits to bringing the wells back online, two of them which have been closed since 2014.
“If we get these wells back online we can significantly increase the water supply that we have for our current and future customers. These are big wells,” Reynolds said, noting that they are currently offline out of an abundance of caution.
Finalizing a new agreement is essential to securing funding, Campbell supervisor Lee Donahue said. She said there are funding opportunities coming the town’s way, but without an agreement on the books, French Island could miss out.
“We are so-to-speak dead in the water — we have to have that water agreement,” Donahue said. She noted the town’s willingness to discuss any “sticking points” the city has with the agreement.
If the town did make the move to hook up to city water as is suggested in the drafted agreement, it’s currently estimated to cost between $30 million and $40 million, and officials are hopeful for financial support from
“Houses are going to need grants to do that. It’s not cheap to connect to the system,” Abraham said. “Laying water pipes in the streets is going to cost someone a lot of money.”
He said, “that burden should not be place on the town, the town residents and the town taxpayers. because this is a situation that we did not cause.”