Eau Claire city officials announced Monday that PFAS levels higher than allowable limits were discovered in four of the city’s 16 wells that provide city residents with drinking water. The city is among about 70 sites in Wisconsin where PFAS contamination has been discovered. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Eau Claire city officials announced Monday that PFAS levels higher than allowable limits were discovered in four of the city’s 16 wells that provide city residents with drinking water. The city is among about 70 sites in Wisconsin where PFAS contamination has been discovered. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

City shuts down four of 16 wells after tests show elevated levels of harmful PFAS.

Eau Claire is the most recent Wisconsin community to discover unsafe levels of PFAS in its drinking water supply after city officials discovered four of the city’s 16 wells had unsafe levels of the chemicals linked to significant risks to human health. 

City officials on Monday announced that testing earlier this month showed PFAS levels in those wells at higher levels than those deemed acceptable by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Health Services (DHS).  

The four wells were immediately shut down, city officials said. The city’s other wells supplying drinking water to residents had either no PFAS level detected or a level within allowable limits.

“We have taken swift action to protect the public’s health and safety by immediately shutting down wells that had PFAS levels above newly recommended standards,” Interim City Manager Dave Solberg said in a news release. “Because the wells were immediately shut down, Eau Claire residents do not need to stop drinking or using water from the city’s water supply.”

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t easily break down in the environment. The substances have been used for decades in such products as firefighting foam and stain-resistant sprays and have been associated with such health problems as cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, and decreased fertility, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists continue to study the health impacts of PFAS on humans. 

The city will continue to monitor PFAS levels in its wells and will work with the DNR to determine the source of PFAS contamination of the four wells, Eau Claire Utilities Manger Lane Berg said. Those efforts will include testing every two weeks to monitor PFAS levels, he said.

City water testing in June 2020 and April of this year found small levels of PFAS in city water, at levels within state-determined PFAS standards, city officials said. However, in June, DHS revised guidelines and determined lesser amounts of the compounds are safe for water supplies.

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Using the new standard, Eau Claire’s previous test results now caused concern, and new PFAS testing was conducted on July 6. Those results showed PFAS levels between 21.3 and 70 nanograms per liter, above the 20 nanogram limit determined by the state.   

Three of the contaminated wells are close to each other, while another is located in a different portion of the city’s wellfield. The city and DNR are working to determine why PFAS levels were higher in those wells. 

“The City will continue to monitor all of its wells for PFAS and continue to work with the DNR and DHS to both keep our drinking water safe and our customers informed,” Berg said.

City officials are studying how to best treat the four wells with higher PFAS levels and will include them in providing water only after testing shows them to be safe.

PFAS contamination has become more commonplace in Wisconsin and has been discovered in about 80 sites statewide. Some of the worst PFAS contamination has been discovered in Marinette, La Crosse, and Madison. 

Wisconsin environmental organizations advocate for all Wisconsin local governments to conduct PFAS testing to better determine pollution levels in the state. Gov. Tony Evers’s proposed 2021-23 state budget included money for those tests as well as $10 million to assist with PFAS contamination cleanup, new DNR positions to monitor PFAS, and the establishment of enforceable PFAS standards. But Republicans removed that funding from the budget Evers signed last week

Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, said testing of Wisconsin’s municipal water supplies is necessary to better determine the extent of PFAS pollution across the state. 

“We don’t know how many sites there are in Wisconsin that are polluted with PFAS,” Wilkin Gibart said during a recent interview. “But we know there are more out there. That is why more testing is so important, so we can know where this pollution is and then do something to try to protect people as best we can.”