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UPDATE: French Island residents, city begin first legal steps in PFAS contamination
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UPDATE: French Island residents, city begin first legal steps in PFAS contamination

From the COLLECTION: PFAS -- 'forever' chemicals -- in the news in 2021 series
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Next round of PFAS testing on French Island

A new round of well testing on French Island will test for PFAS contaminations in three areas, mostly southwest of the original testing site, but will also reach northwest of the sites, to truly lock-in the boundaries of the contamination. The areas are shown in this map labeled with numbers and highlighted in a transparent blue.

More than 125 French Island residents have filed claims against the city of La Crosse for its role in the pollution of drinking water by a toxic group of chemicals.

An attorney representing the residents served 800 pages of notices of the claims to the city this week, which he said highlight the historical use of a firefighting foam at the city’s airport which has led to the pollution.

It comes simultaneously as the city is taking its first steps in legal action against the manufacturers of the foam, seeking legal counsel from a group of lawyers experienced in similar lawsuits.

Last month the city announced that more than 40 private drinking wells had been polluted with above-standard levels of PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, “forever chemicals” that will not break down over time and are highly toxic.

Tim Jacobson mug 2016

Jacobson

The chemicals are believed to have originated at the city’s airport, where it was federally required for decades to use a firefighting foam that contained the chemicals during trainings and possible accidents, which then moved downstream through the groundwater and into private wells.

Those impacted have been advised not to use their water for consumption, including drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, gardening and more, and many have been given bottled water to replace those activities.

“PFAS contamination on French Island has resulted in an enormous tragedy affecting a huge number of homeowners,” attorney Tim Jacobson said in a statement. He is an Onalaska environmental lawyer with Fitzpatrick, Skemp & Butler, LLC.

“We are pleased that the city is providing bottled water to homes with the worst contamination on a temporary basis, but the city needs to go much further than that by committing to provide a permanent supply of clean drinking water and compensating residents for their losses and injuries,” Jacobson said.

The claims filed by residents this week, if they are denied, can be precursors for lawsuits, and Jacobson said he is preparing for litigation if an “amicable settlement,” cannot be reached.

“We welcome the opportunity to negotiate a fair and reasonable resolution of these issues, but we will fight like hell to protect the victims of this widespread drinking water pollution if the responsible parties don’t step up to the plate and solve this voluntarily,” Jacobson said.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has identified the city of La Crosse as the responsible party for this pollution, which the city has accepted, but the issue of overall responsibility is a blurry one as officials across the nation are just beginning to unravel decades of the history of these chemicals.

Specifically, it’s been reported that some of the companies that produced the chemicals may have known their toxic effects decades before alerting the government just years ago.

Additionally, the federal government has historically, and still in some cases, required airports to use the foam containing the chemicals in instances of training and plane crashes.

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The city of La Crosse has indicated interest in seeking its own legal action against those companies that produced the foam, and is asking the common council to approve the hiring of Crueger Dickinson LLC and Napoli Shkolnik PLLC to represent the city.

Both law firms have been successful in similar litigation against PFAS contamination in the state of Wisconsin, the reason La Crosse is now seeking their legal help, Mayor Tim Kabat said.

The city had been working to still identify the specific manufacturers of the foam used at the airport, specifically those dating back decades, and it’s unclear if that has been resolved.

In addition, Gov. Tony Evers has indicated he was open to seeking litigation against responsible parties. Other communities have been successful in legal action against chemical companies in recent years, resulting in big payouts.

But Jacobson said that possible litigation from the city will do little to benefit residents of French Island, doubting they will see any of the possible financial compensation from a ruling.

“I am unaware of any mechanism through which the city would have legal standing to assert claims against chemical companies in a way that would provide any direct benefit to citizens of another municipality,” Jacobson said.

“It seems disingenuous to me that the mayor is suggesting that town of Campbell residents will somehow receive a remedy as a result of the city suing the manufacturers. If the city recovers money from third parties, I can only assume the city will pocket the money to benefit itself,” he said.

In response, Kabat urged working together on the issue.

“Personally, I do not understand why Attorney Jacobson is trying to sow division and confusion between the residents of Campbell and the city of La Crosse, as we are both victims of these manufactured chemicals and have been negatively impacted,” Kabat told the Tribune in an email.

Mayor Tim Kabat

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat.

“I would strongly encourage impacted residents to join forces with our effort,” he said, noting that more information on joint work would be coming soon.

As of Jan. 5, the city had tested 109 private wells on French Island — which is largely under the jurisdiction by the town of Campbell aside from the airport — where all but one well showed some amount of PFAS in the water.

Fifty-five of those showed a level of contamination that is currently below the Wisconsin DNR’s proposed standards, and at least 40 were above the standards, though it is important to note that these standards were only first implemented in 2019.

The city will pursue testing a number of other wells to better understand the contamination in the coming weeks and months.

Officials at this time are not recommending health screening for any of the impacted residents, though the La Crosse County Health Department recently said it has been fielding reports of illnesses on the island to the state to better understand if there might be a trend.

“I am hearing stories about a high prevalence of cancers, thyroid conditions and suspicious deaths in this neighborhood,” Jacobson said. “People have been drinking this poison for years, and now they are justifiably scared. It’s our goal to ensure French Island residents receive a proper remedy.”

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