In early 2020, in this space, we posed a question regarding perfluorinated chemicals or PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment: How much of those chemicals would you like in your glass of water?
We’re confident your answer was “none at all” then, and remains the same.
People in the town of Campbell would love to give the same answer. But many of them have no choice.
In Campbell, with a population of fewer than 5,000 on French Island across the Mississippi River from La Crosse, there was no money to conduct water testing in 2020, when contamination from the nearby La Crosse Regional Airport was disclosed, and homeowners naturally wanted to know if PFAS had reached their wells.
The news, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported, wasn’t good: Of 551 private drinking wells sampled to date, 538 have some trace of the “forever” chemicals. More than 130 have levels above state-recommended limits for drinking water.
For a town of Campbell’s size, the idea of having to switch to a municipal water system is daunting, to say the least. Estimates the town received for such a switch were $15 million to $20 million, and that was in the late ’90s.
“We’re very concerned, as a small town we’re only allowed to take on so much debt,” Town Chairman Josh Johnson told the Journal Sentinel. “Potentially the project might have to be done in sections, starting in the hardest-hit areas.”
In Peshtigo in Marinette County, at a Tyco Fire Products testing facility, firefighting foam was tested for years before the practice was ended in 2017. The contamination in Marinette County is so bad, it requires remediation and delivery of drinking water to multiple homeowners who can no longer safely consume the water from their wells. Some residents have relied on bottled water for years.
It’s not just a small-town problem, either: In Madison, elevated levels of PFAS were found in Lake Monona after they were used to fight an electrical transformer fire in 2019 in downtown Madison. The “forever chemicals” were found in 14 of 23 municipal wells in the state capital.
PFAS are used in clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foams. They were used, for example, on June 15 to help extinguish the massive blaze at the Chemtool chemical plant in Rockton, Illinois, just a few miles south of the Wisconsin-Illinois border, the Associated Press reported. That is before the Rockton fire chief ordered Chemtool’s parent company to switch to a foam that doesn’t have PFAS.
Because PFAS accumulate in the body over long periods of time, it’s really hard to get rid of them. Studies have linked PFAS to reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney and immunological effects in laboratory animals, and have caused tumors and increased cholesterol levels.
It’s extremely difficult to remove them from the environment, and once they are released they travel through water with ease.
Which brings us to our elected officials in Madison.
Wisconsin is receiving $2.5 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan.
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported earlier this month that, thanks to “unprecedented” tax collections, the state will take in $4.4 billion more than previously estimated in general fund tax revenue by mid-2023.
Wisconsin has considerably more money than it was expecting.
Gov. Tony Evers and the Legislature must agree to allocate some of that windfall to help Peshtigo, the Town of Campbell, Madison and other communities, large or small, deal with PFAS.
Because we’re sure our elected officials wouldn’t want forever chemicals in their drinking water, either.
— Racine Journal Times