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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Peshtigo Water Not Contaminated, Still Waiting For Sludge Test Results

Issue Date: May 16, 2019

Public Works Director George Cowell told the City of Peshtigo's Water and Sewer Committee at its meeting on Tuesday, May 14 that, contrary to reports in some news media, neither PFAS nor any other contamination has been confirmed in either the city's drinking water or the sludge from its wastewater treatment plant.

Results of the well water tests are posted on the city's web site, and can be accessed by everyone. The decision to have the well water tested was done as a precaution as a result of problems found in other areas around the city. There is no requirement by the DNR for either type of test.

Cowell said sludge samples were sent to a testing facility in California, the only one they could find to do the sort of tests they had voluntarily requested. The testing takes time, and results will not be back for at least another 20 days.

City officials learned in mid-March that possible PFAS-containing compounds in the wastewater treatment system from testing done by Tyco Fire Protection Products/Johnson Controls at a warehouse they had rented at 150 Pine Street in Peshtigo had been discharged into the sanitary sewer system since about 2010. At the request of Peshtigo city officials Tyco voluntarily agreed to halt the PFAS containing discharges into the sanitary sewer system.

Subsequently, the city voluntarily had the wastewater treatment plant sludge samples taken to determine what, if any, PFAS contamination it may contain. Sludge from the wastewater lagoons eventually is spread on farm fields approved by the DNR at the request of property owners, where it has a beneficial use as a fertilizer.

Cowell said testing of sludge for PFAS content is still so new that they had found only two laboratories in the nation that could do them, one in Michigan that now has stopped doing the tests, and the other in California, where the samples were sent. Each test costs $300, he said.

Elevated PFAS levels believed to come from Tyco tests of firefighting foam at a site in the City of Marinette has been found in groundwater in some parts of the Town of Peshtigo. Adverse health effects from PFAS compounds were only recently discovered,and safe drinking water standards were set by the the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2016. The PFOA and PFOS compounds were widely used in waterproofing, various fabrics, Teflon cookware and numerous other products as well as in the firefighting foams produced by Tyco.

He said testing for PFAS content is so sensitive that people taking the samples need to wear plain cotton clothes that have not been dried with fabric softener dryer sheets, and may not wear Gortex fabrics, for example waterproof boots, gloves, aprons, etc.

Cowell also distributed copies of test results on wells that supply clean water for the city-owned utility, and those tests show only a minute amount of a related compound of PFHpA, approximately 0.85, but actually too small to detect. He said this equates to 1.4 parts per trillion or less, and actually could come from the atmosphere or clothing worn by persons taking the test samples. There is no health advisory for this PFAS-related substance. The health advisory level for PFAS compounds overall is 70 parts per trillion, more than 90 times the amount of PFHpA found in the wells that supply water to the city utility.

Cowell said results of tests on the water supply, done by Northern Lake Services, Inc. Analytical Laboratory and Environmental Services of Crandon, are posted on the city's website and anyone interested can access them there. He added that as soon as results from the sludge testing are in they will also be posted on the city's website.

Meanwhile, Cowell is asking city residents to help eliminate problems with sanitary sewer overflows by making sure fresh water from sump pumps and other drains does not flow into the sanitary sewer system, and by never, ever flushing away "wipes" other than regular toilet paper.

Cowell told the committee there were major overflows of sewage from April 17 to April 18 and again from Thursday May 9 to the morning of Saturday, May 11 at a manhole west of the Peshtigo River crossing and the siphon-type lift station that pushes sanitary sewage across the river to the wastewater treatment plant on the city's east side.

Cowell said the April overflow was caused by three major factors, including high ground waters from the snow pack level, extremely high water level in the river, and the long stretch of rain, the lift station was not able to handle all the fresh water that got into the sanitary sewer system. Fortunately the manhole is in a depression and none of the overflow got directly into the river.

The committee praised Cowell's handling of the overflows, including news releases to keep the public informed.

That 50,000 gallon overflow brought an official Notice of Noncompliance from the DNR that was dated May 2. The DNR letter noted the last overflow was in the same area and the response included raising the structure three feet to improve the flow. The DNR letter calls on the city to update appropriate sections of its compliance plan (CMOM) to have a clear response to emergency situations, and since an overflow had occurred in this location previously, the city is to complete more inspections in this area and specify that in the CMOM. They are also to report to the DNR the plan to televise the area of concern on the west side of the city near the site of the overflow and submit a summary of the followup plan, update the DNR on plans to eliminate school roof drains and reduce illegal sump pump connections to the sanitary sewer system.

Cowell told the Water and Sewer Committee that in response to the letter they now record water depth at that manhole every morning to be sure there's no blockage, and they have an emergency plan in place that includes a "hot line" contact number for the DNR.

He said they do need to do more televising of the sanitary sewer system on the city's west side, particularly in view of the age and condition of the sewers. However, he does not feel the overflow was the result of any compromise in the pipes, but because the overflow was so clear he does believe there was a lot of fresh water in the system that should have gone into storm sewers or ditches instead.

Letters will be going out asking property owners to disconnect sump pump pumps and basement floor drains from the sanitary sewer system, and eventually they will need to do a house to house check. This, he said, will be a really huge undertaking.

Committee Member Dan Seymour asked if that was done when the cross connection inspections were carried out a few years ago. Chair Tom Gryzwa said most of those inspections were done by an outside agency that would not have been looking at floor or sump pump drains

Cowell said they had another overflow at the same river crossing manhole on Thursday through Saturday of the previous week (May 9 through 11), this time due to a blockage in the pipes that was probably caused by sanitary wipes, so they will be getting another DNR letter of non-compliance.

Gryzwa wondered if they need to look at expanding capacity of the river crossing pipes. There currently are two 6" cast iron pipes to carry all the sewage from the city's west side.

Cowell agreed it might be good to look at what can be done there, although the pipes can handle normal sewage flows. However, the siphon-type sewers date from the 1920s, and he felt a consultant could advise alternatives to prevent the over flows, so he felt a request for proposals would be in order. He cautioned that replacing the river crossing pipes would be a very expensive project, but it will probably need to be done some day, so they should start budgeting for it.

Seymour commented the overflows only seem to happen at this time of year, and said he would rather fix the other problems that cause it, including the illegal storm sewer connections. Gryzwa felt the letter to utility customers should be a separate mailing, not just part of the water bill, and the others agreed. Cowell said enforcing the request could be a problem. If people didn't correct their water cross-connections they could shut the water off, but sewer is different. He said some communities enact an ordinance adding a surcharge if the fresh water drain issues are not corrected. He said the city has been trying to help resolve the drainage issues wherever it can, but most areas of the city have no connections to storm sewer drains, and those on streets are often frozen over in winter. Meintz agreed that people who run sump pump and floor drains into the street can end up flooding their neighbors' driveways.

"You've got to hit them in the pocket book," Committee Member Fred Meintz agreed.

Cowell said it is harder to get compliance with requests for people to not flush the sanitary wipes, particularly since manufacturers so often advertise them as "flushable." He said they can indeed be flushed down a toilet, but when they gather they cause huge and costly problems for the sanitary sewer system. He again asked people to cooperate by throwing the wipes in the trash instead of flushing them away.

Cowell said many blockages due to sanitary wipes have been happening in the Badger Park and Oak Street areas and he has contacted the nursing homes with requests for their cooperation in keeping the wipes and other blockage-causing products out of the sanitary sewer system.

Gryzwa commented the wipes are indeed "flushable"you can flush them, but they don't go far." Cowell said they now check the river crossing for wipe blockages daily, and have had problems with lift station pumps burning out from overheating caused by the wipes.

He said some time ago they found that a storm sewer from an old industrial building that had been torn down was going into the sanitary sewer system. That has been corrected.

The school recently was given 90 days to disconnect the roof drains on the old High School building from the sanitary sewer system, and he is confident they will cooperate by getting the work done as soon as possible.

After discussion, a request from Katie Moore and Luke Vincent for compensation for damages from backup of a sewer into their basement was denied. Cowell said their letter is dated May 1, but states the backup happened in April. "We didn't get a call at that time, so we couldn't check it out," Cowell said, adding there had been a lot of surface water in basements in April. There was in fact a sewer backup on April 19, but he was not aware of any others with damage problems, and repeated that he did not know if the damages on the claim were caused by sewer or surface water.

Gryzwa noted the utility's insurance carrier denied the claim, as did the insurance carrier for the property involved, and City Attorney David Spangenberg had also advised denial. Cowell felt there was no alternative other than to deny the claim, and the committee agreed without dissent. Spangenberg apparently had already sent a denial letter.

In other business, Cowell said crews have been flushing of water lines on the city's east side is being done this year, from late every Thursday night to early each Friday morning. Residents drawing water at that time may find it rusty.

A fire hydrant on Wood Ave. needs to be replaced and Cowell has ordered four new hydrants to have a backup supply.


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841 Maple St
PO Box 187
Peshtigo, WI 54157
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