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FRENCH ISLAND

WATCH NOW: State to provide bottled water to all town of Campbell residents, issues water advisory

From the COLLECTION: PFAS -- 'forever' chemicals -- in the news in 2021 series
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Multiple state agencies announced Thursday they will now provide bottled water to all town of Campbell residents after issuing a temporary drinking water advisory for the island in the wake of the PFAS contamination.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is partnering with the Department of Health Services, Wisconsin Air National Guard and Wisconsin Emergency Management to provide the water, which comes on top of the city’s existing bottled water service for those residents with the most polluted water.

Campbell water distribution

Reserve officer Taylor Rakes with the Town of Campbell Police and other town personnel, distribute bottled water to residents Thursday at Olivet Lutheran Church on French Island. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health Services has issued a temporary drinking water advisory for the island due to concerns over PFAS contamination in private wells.

In addition, both the DNR and DHS issued an “interim, area-wide drinking water advisory” for French Island residents until officials can better understand how widespread the pollution is.

This news comes after the city discovered that more than 100 private wells on French Island had been contaminated with PFAS, a toxic “forever chemical,” believed to have originated from firefighting foam used at the La Crosse Regional Airport.

Officials said during a media briefing Thursday that the state is now aware of around 185 private wells that have been tested — either by the city, town or independently by a resident — where all but one well showed amounts of PFAS.

Of those 185 wells, 61 are above the state’s recommended levels of contamination, which is currently set at 20 parts per trillion — confirming what many officials and residents have feared in recent weeks that the scope of the pollution might be more widespread than originally thought.

“After a review of available well data, the DHS agrees with the DNR that the extent of PFAS contamination on French Island is currently undetermined and therefore justifies an interim, area-wide drinking water advisory,” said Curtis Hedman with DHS.

The state is now working on a plan to test additional wells on the island, but is waiting to receive final results from pending tests until the exact scope is set. Officials said the state is not likely to repeat any tests, but instead to test in new areas to get a “broader idea,” of the contamination.

“The DNR and its contractor are evaluating the available information — including existing private sampling results and location of over 90 additional wells sampled to date — to develop a sampling plan for a subset of the island’s private water supply wells. Based on sampling results, the state will determine whether to continue or modify,” the water advisory states.

“It’s sometimes an art and a science on how to find where this groundwater contamination is and where it’s moving. So it won’t always be self-evident on where exactly where to sample, but we’re doing our best right now to get a general overall of where we think the contamination has moved to,” said Darsi Foss with the DNR.

Officials are still uncertain what source could be causing the extended contamination, noting that the city is currently only responsible for the site just south of the airport.

Campbell water distribution

Town of Campbell personnel including Neal McGough with Campbell Fire Department distribute bottled water to residents March 25 at Olivet Lutheran Church on French Island. A temporary drinking water advisory has been issued for the island due to concerns over PFAS contamination in private wells.

David Rozeboom with the DNR told reporters Thursday that testing has shown some concentrations of PFAS in surrounding bodies of water near the island, including the Mississippi and Black Rivers, though the levels are low, signaling a possible contamination source north of the island.

“There is a consistent concentration within the Mississippi River and the Black River on the east side. We anticipate that they co-mingle with Lake Onalaska just north of the island,” Rozeboom said. “And we expect that concentrations in the river can very well contribute to what we see in the groundater on the island, given the geology and the flow characteristics of the island.”

State officials said they were also aware of a plane crash that occurred north of the airport in the 1970s that was not accounted for in the city’s investigation.

This news also comes just days after emails obtained by the Tribune, and first reported on by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, showed that La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat refused to provide bottled water to residents whose contamination did not fall below the state’s standards.

The city is currently providing bottled water to 54 residents, deploying at least $25,000 worth.

In recent weeks, the city’s response to the PFAS crisis has come under fire, many residents and local officials urging for more testing, water and a wider investigation.

But state officials said they are not taking over the city’s investigation or work, only supplementing it.

In the event that the city or another party can be identified for the broader contamination being found on the island, the state said it may be legally required to seek cost reimbursement from them.

Local companies are also joining efforts, several of them with plans to distribute clean water to residents Thursday night, including Hy-Vee, Kwik Trip and CVS.

Campbell water distribution

HyVee employees distribute bottled water the company donated to town of Campbell residents, March 25 on French Island. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health Services has issued a drinking water advisory for the island due to concerns over PFAS contamination in private wells.

The DNR said it will provide the option for five gallon containers of bottled water from Culligan — the same company the city is currently using for its bottled water service — to be delivered to homes.

Any town of Campbell resident with private water supply is eligible to receive the water regardless of contamination, as well as any folks in the city’s identified plume site that are not receiving its bottled water service.

Residents will need to register through the DNR, and can begin receiving water in the coming week.

The DNR is using its budget to fund the water and said it’s unclear how much the total disbursement will cost, depending on how many residents register, but that it will find places in its budget to accommodate needs as best as possible.

“Providing clean drinking water to people is one of our top priorities, if not thee top priority,” Foss said. “It may mean other things get put on the back burner.”

The state said because of these cost barriers, it had to weigh testing all private wells on the island over providing the bottled water.

As of now the state is not reimbursing residents who paid to have their wells tested themselves.

The state said it is also too early to tell what the long-term solution might look like or who would be involved, saying that the scope of the contamination needs to be fully understood first — but noted that from experience, the solution is “often not a quick fix.”

Residents looking to register for the DNR-issued water can fill out a form on its website, that can either be emailed or mailed. The forms can also be picked up at the town of Campbell town hall.

The DNR has also launched a website dedicated to information on the French Island PFAS contamination, which has links to resources and public meetings and other information.

A public information session is being held Thursday, March 25 at 6:30 p.m. on the DNR YouTube page, with another one expected mid-April.

This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. Thursday to include new details on the state’s investigation.

"It's sometimes an art and a science on how to find where this groundwater contamination is and where it's moving ..., but we're doing our best right now to get a general overall of where we think the contamination has moved to."

Darsi Foss, DNR

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