On the French island of Wisconsin, residents live with lingering ‘forever chemicals’

A big part of what drove Lee Donahue to move to the town of Campbell, Wisconsin nearly two decades ago was the water.

Water surrounds this community on French Island, just north of La Crosse. The island is surrounded by the Mississippi River on one side and the Black River on the other.

An angler went Wednesday to Lake Onalaska and the Mississippi River.

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

“The reason people live here is the connection to nature,” Donahue said. “Everyone is a fisherman. Everyone is recreational, whether it’s a canoe, a kayak, a photographer.”

But these days, water is also a major concern for Donahue, who serves as the city’s supervisor for health, education and welfare.

For over a year, residents of the Town of Campbell have been using bottled water for drinking, cooking and even brushing their teeth. This is because many private wells on French Island have high levels of PFAS which make the water unsafe to drink.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a large class of man-made chemicals known for their tendency not to break down in the environment. They are found in a wide variety of products, including nonstick cookware, carpets, clothing, and some fire-fighting foams.

Donahue said residents of the Town of Campbell are angry and frustrated. Some have been drinking water from their wells for decades, unaware of the contamination. Long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to adverse health effects such as kidney and thyroid disease and cancer.

“It weighs on your mind so much,” Donahue said. “You now have something in your body that you can’t get out, and you don’t know what your health response will be. Are you going to get liver cancer? Are you going to get brain cancer? Your 21-year-olds years old will they get testicular cancer? You don’t know.

A fighter jet takes off during training

A fighter jet takes off during training at La Crosse Regional Airport on the French island on Thursday. PFAS contamination has been found in drinking water near the airport.

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Officials believe the source of the contamination is La Crosse Regional Airport, where foam containing PFAS was used for training and to put out fires resulting from plane crashes.

The nearby town of La Crosse owns the airport. It also has three municipal wells located on the French island that it no longer uses due to PFAS detections.

A water tank on US Geological Survey land near the airport

Water tanks on US Geological Survey land near the airport on the French island are not in use due to PFAS contamination.

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

The state and city provided French Island residents with five-gallon jugs of water. But finding a long-term solution is proving difficult and will be expensive.

“We’re kind of the tip of the spear in the state of Wisconsin,” said La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds. He said similar issues have been identified in Rhinelander, Madison, Marinette, Wausau and other communities.

“We realize there are significant levels of chemicals everywhere,” Reynolds said.

The situation in the French islands highlights the legal and regulatory challenge of determining who is responsible for the PFAS problem and who should pay the price.

Reynolds said La Crosse officials worked with the town of Campbell to find a solution, such as possibly connecting residents to the town’s water system.

The Airport Fire Department training area at La Crosse Regional Airport

On Wednesday, the airport firefighter training area at La Crosse Regional Airport on the French island, from where some of the PFAS contamination is believed to have originated.

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

The city also sued nearly two dozen chemical manufacturers that produced the fire-fighting foam used at the airport.

“We think the manufacturers are responsible because they knew very well the risks of the chemicals in the foams and all the rest of the products that we use, and simply didn’t disclose that information,” Reynolds said.

Last month, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul traveled to the French island to announce a lawsuit against 18 companies, including 3M and DuPont, seeking to force them to reimburse the state for investigating and cleaned PFAS contamination.

In a statement, 3M said it has acted responsibly in its manufacture and sale of PFAS “and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.”

Families enjoy the beach and water at Airport Beach

On Wednesday, families enjoy the beach and the water at Airport Beach on French Island.

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

The Wisconsin case extends to the Minnesota lawsuit against 3M, which was settled in 2018. The company agreed to pay the state $850 million for damage to natural resources in the eastern suburb of Twin Cities , where the water supply of several communities has been affected.

But the contamination is not limited to the Eastern Twin Cities or drinking water. In the years since that lawsuit, scientists and regulators have realized that PFAS is a much more widespread problem, said Sophie Greene, PFAS coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“We realize that we can find PFAS not only in drinking water, but also in our lakes and streams,” Greene said. “We can find it in our fish and our deer. And in some cases when we go out and measure it in the air, we even find it in the air.”

While the Minnesota case only targeted 3M, the Wisconsin lawsuit not only names the manufacturers of PFAS, but also the companies that distributed, sold or promoted PFAS products.

John Gardella is an environmental lawyer with the Boston law firm CMBG3, which advises companies on PFAS regulations. He said the number of lawsuits and enforcement actions against companies linked to PFAS was on the rise. And increasingly, enforcement actions are aimed at more than just PFAS manufacturers.

“That’s a lot of businesses – landfills, recycling facilities, even businesses that just had fires on their property and firefighters used foam (containing PFAS),” he said. -he declares. “It’s really, really downstream.”

Lee Donahue watches the Black River

Town of Campbell, Wisconsin, resident and city council member Lee Donahue looks out over the Black River near Airport Beach on French Island. Donahue has worked to raise awareness of PFAS at city wells and get the state to help improve residents’ drinking water.

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Federal regulations

Under the Biden administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency is taking a more active role in regulating PFAS at the federal level.

It recently issued health advisories for four PFAS chemicals at very low levels. It is expected to adopt enforceable drinking water standards in the near future that could be costly and difficult for communities to meet.

David Andrews, lead scientist with the non-profit environmental working group, said local communities should bear the costs of treating water for PFAS. And as the levels considered safe to drink drop, those costs will rise.

“As you try to clean at lower and lower concentrations, we find that many more drinking water systems and waterways are contaminated with these pollutants,” Andrews said. “And it will cost a lot to clean up this contamination.”

The EPA is also moving toward reporting certain PFAS as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund Act, making it easier for polluters to be financially accountable.

Efforts have also been made at the state level to ban the use of PFAS in certain products. In Minnesota, the legislature passed a ban on PFAS on food packaging, but efforts to keep the chemicals out of other products such as ski wax, cookware and cosmetics have failed.

“Unfortunately, the only real solution to this problem is to remove these chemicals from our environment and our commerce,” Greene said.

Lee Donahue turns rainwater into water

Town of Campbell, Wis., resident and City Council member Lee Donahue collects rainwater to water her vegetable plants Wednesday in her garden. Donahue will not use the water from his hose because it is contaminated with PFAS.

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

On French Island, Donahue worries that PFAS will continue to spread, affecting the rivers and wildlife the locals cherish.

“It’s horrible not being able to drink tap water,” she says. “But what happens when PFAS spreads and affects this whole extra facet of our quality of life? What happens then?

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