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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RHINELANDER - As the Coronavirus spreads across the world, medical professionals balance giving patients the best care possible while also keeping themselves healthy.

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. 

"We said hey we aren't going to wait around for someone else to do it, we wanted to do something positive for the community." said Lead Pastor Joseph Fehlen. 

The Grace Foursquare Church in Rhinelander transformed its Family Life Center into a place for medical professionals to stay.  

"We were sitting around thinking what in the world can we do with our empty buildings. We were just like hey how about we open up our Family Life Center for medical professionals that might be scared to go home or can't go home because they are interacting with the Coronavirus," Fehlen said. 

Fehlen says there are eight beds available with most household items handy.   

"We've got some items donated. Slumberland gave us an amazing deal. Home Depot has been working with us to give us different supplies. People in our church have already donated and just the outpouring of people who've offered to help," Fehlen said. 

The church assures that all spaces have been deep cleaned and prepared for the healthcare workers.

"There's a lot of space, there's a washer and dryer they can use when they come in. So there's a lot of things to do to keep it sanitized and we will have out bleach bottles and wipes all over the place," Fehlen said. 

Fehlen says the church space will be available for as long as it's needed. In the meantime he hopes positive actions like this will keep the community moving forward during these times of need.

"Hang around with people who are hope dealers, dealing out hope, graciousness, love, forgiveness and acceptance to each other. Find those people," Fehlen said. 

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The Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Stores in our area that sell the materials to make them have been declared non-essential, though.

"I don't want to jeopardize anybody's health and be open as usual," store owner Mary Wilke said.

Wilke knew she had to close both of her Sew Smart crafting supply stores as soon as COVID-19 appeared, but she was offering curbside delivery until she got a call.

"The health department called me and told me that I was not abiding by the law and I had to cease immediately and I could no longer do that," Wilke said. "The only options I had were to do mail order or deliveries."

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Oneida County health officials confirmed two more people have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the county's total to 5.

Health officials say the 4th individual is in their 50's and has traveled outside the community, but has not had any contact with any of the previously confirmed cases in the county.  That person is now in isolation.

They say the 5th individual is in their 70's, and is currently in the hospital.  They say they person has not had contact with any of the previously confirmed cases in the county, nor have they traveled outside of the community.

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MADISON - The number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus in Wisconsin is up to 77 as of Monday, the state Department of Health Services reported.

That is an increase of nine people from Sunday. There have now been deaths reported in 16 counties. More than half of all deaths, 40, have occurred in Milwaukee County, followed by Dane County with nine.

As of Monday, there were 2,440 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. But because testing is not widespread, health officials continue to caution the actual number of cases is far higher.

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A second person has died of injuries suffered in a crash caused by a homicide suspect fleeing from law enforcement in Milwaukee.

A 23-year-old man died over the weekend after he was critically injured in a crash Friday that also caused the death of a 20-year-old woman.

The 27-year-old suspect is wanted for a homicide in Minot, North Dakota.

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RHINELANDER - The Northwoods Alliance for Temporary Housing, or NATH, celebrated its ninth year in January. Just a few months later, volunteers are finding ways to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

NATH normally hosts one or more fundraisers a month. However, they've had to cancel those recently. Executive Director Tammy Modic says the organization has lost nearly $30,000 as a result, but the impact extends much farther than money.

"It's not only the dollars. It's the community outreach," said Modic. "It's the volunteer you get, the youth that says, 'when I go back to school I'm going to do a fundraiser.'"

Modic said there are ways the community can help out during this time, like donating meals to residents at Frederick Place.

"Individuals, families, groups, businesses can sign up to provide a meal at Frederick Place. We figure we're saving $50 to $100 a night by doing this."

People can either cook or provide supplies for a meal, or support a local restaurant and order food to be delivered.

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WAUSAU - COVID-19 led to a drastic cutback in commercial air travel all across the country.

In many cases, the pandemic has actually grounded flights.

That's the case at Central Wisconsin Airport, which used to get direct Delta service to and from Detroit.

Delta cut that route for the time being due to decreased demand.

Unlike flights to Oneida County Airport, CWA's routes are not federally subsidized.

The lack of a subsidy left the Detroit route vulnerable to a temporary cut.

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