DNR names Rhinelander airport 'potentially responsible party' for PFAS contamination that shut down city well Submitted: 12/16/2019
Stephen Goin
Stephen Goin

DNR names Rhinelander airport 'potentially responsible party' for PFAS contamination that shut down city well
RHINELANDER - After Rhinelander Well 7 was taken offline in June over chemical contamination concerns, the source of PFAS pollution that led to the shutdown may have been identified. 

A particular type of firefighting foam, which contains PFAS, could be at fault. According to the DNR, that foam would have come from the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport.

"We have it [foam] on hand but we don't use it often," said airport director Matthew Leitner. "It's cost prohibitive for us to use."

While the airport has never used the foam to combat an actual fire, Leitner said his staff is still required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to check the potency of firefighting foam annually.

"An operation specialist here at the airport holds a bucket, and then just a little bit [of foam] at a low pressure is discharged through a turret," said Leitner. "We use a refractometer to test the concentration of the foam."

Leitner said the foam is never tested on actual flames and never touches the ground. After testing, the excess foam is poured into an air-tight container in an airport storage hangar.

In an Aug. 2 letter to the DNR, Leitner revealed the only documented hazardous material dump at the airport occurred in 1994 when 150 gallons of jet fuel was inadvertently released. After a remediation process, the incident was deemed closed in May 2002.

Leitner said he was "incredulous" when the DNR sent a six-page letter on Dec. 6 claiming firefighting foam was potentially responsible for PFAS contamination in Well 7.

"I would like to know more about how they connected the dots between the airport and the well," said Leitner.

DNR program manager Chris Saari says the airport is considered a potential responsible party (PRP) because of its proximity to the well. According to Leitner, Well 7 is located near the airport but does not reside on airport property.

"They are the closest entity to the well that has reported actually having these chemicals present," said Saari.

Leitner doubts the airport is responsible for PFAS contamination and offered up other potential sources of pollution.

"It's dental floss, it's pizza boxes, it's popcorn bags," said Leitner. "I don't know if the DNR is going to send everybody with a popcorn bag a letter naming them a responsible party for contamination."

Despite his doubts, Leitner said he plans to comply with DNR requests.

"We are fully pledged to being transparent, being in compliance, doing whatever we are asked to do within reason," said Leitner.

According to Saari, one thing the airport won't be required to do is discontinue its use of firefighting foam.

"My program at least is not telling anyone that you can't use this for legitimate firefighting purposes," said Saari.

Leitner says he will continue to ensure the foam does not get used.

"I know we don't discharge it, not on my watch," said Leitner.

The airport will now be required to hire an environmental consultant, submit numerous reports and conduct a field investigation.

bill introduced in the state assembly, supported by Rep. Shankland of Stevens Point, would limit the use of firefighting foam.

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