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Rhinelander shuts down well after finding high chemical levels, declares water now safe; no assurance for purity of private wellsSubmitted: 07/23/2019
Story By Ben Meyer

Rhinelander shuts down well after finding high chemical levels, declares water now safe; no assurance for purity of private wells
RHINELANDER - The City of Rhinelander told residents this week its municipal water is safe to drink, responding to concerns of elevated chemical levels in city water.

On Monday night, the city said it had shut down Well 7 on June 24 after a test for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) came back showing excessive levels.

But on Tuesday morning, the Oneida County Health Department couldn't offer a similar assurance about the purity of private wells in the area.

PFAS refers to a group of manmade chemicals that may cause higher cholesterol, low infant birthweights, and lower female fertility, among other health risks. The manmade chemical is found in products like food wrappers, stain-resistant fabrics, and nail polish.


On May 30, Rhinelander voluntarily submitted a water sample from each of its five operational wells. It reviewed the results on June 24. They showed the PFAS level on Well 7, which is at the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport, at 104.8 parts per trillion.

"The results indicated that one of the city's five wells, Well 7, had levels of this PFAS chemical that exceeded the EPA's lifetime disclosure advisory," said Rhinelander City Administrator Daniel Guild on Tuesday. "So, out of an abundance of caution, and a desire to communicate with our customers and citizens, we shut down Well 7."

Neither the federal or state government has PFAS limits that carry the force of law. However, the EPA's health advisory level is 70 parts per trillion. On June 21, three days before the well was shut off, the state of Wisconsin announced a new recommended groundwater standard limit of 20 parts per trillion. Well 7's numbers, while not violating any regulations, were above both recommendations.

Well 7 was shut off the same day the results were received. An additional test, using water collected on June 27, showed the PFAS level in Well 7 at 86.9 parts per trillion.

Starting June 24, city customers have been served by water from the four remaining wells.

"Rhinelander Water Utility customers are receiving their water through the city's distribution system, and the distribution system is pressurized and treated from water combining from Wells 4, 5, 6, and 8," Guild said.

Both the city and the Oneida County Health Department are confident, with Well 7 off, city water is safe to drink. Testing from water on May 30 showed the remaining wells are far below concerning PFAS levels.

"Only Well 7 has been affected by PFAS so far, and, of course, that well has been taken offline. It's not contributing any longer to the city's water supply," said county environmental health specialist Todd Troskey. "There's no indication that the other wells have been affected."

While officials say city water is safe to drink, they can't be sure about water in nearby private wells.

"There is not currently enough information to determine where the contamination comes from or extends to," said Oneida County Health Officer Linda Conlon in a press release. "If people are concerned about their private well, we recommend they find an alternative source of water, such as bottled water or water from a known safe source."

"If they think that they may have some health issues that potentially are related to PFAS substances, the first step would be maybe to consult their physician," Troskey said on Tuesday.

Troskey decided to post warnings at the popular Crescent Spring on South River Road, southwest of the city of Rhinelander. The health department advises people not to drink from the spring as it undergoes testing for PFAS. The spring is not far from the location of Well 7.

"We have no reason to believe that there is any, but we're definitely being on the safe side," Troskey said.

The City of Rhinelander plans to mail a notice of the situation to each water customer. Guild said he's not worried about being able to meet the demand for water while running just four wells instead of five.

"At this current time, we don't have any concerns about being able to meet the demand of our customers," he said.

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That juggling act forced many healthcare providers to stay away from their families -- fearing they may bring the virus home.

One local church opened its doors to give them a clean, safe, and free place to stay. 

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