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Lawsuits, ‘several hundred thousand dollars’ spent and no long-term solution for French Island PFAS disaster

Rick Solem

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Lawsuits, the seemingly impossible task of tracking “forever chemicals” in groundwater, providing residents that have contaminated wells with bottled water and — yet to come — a more permanent solution for the dilemma that Town of Campbell residents simply can’t turn on their faucet and get a drink.

The PFAS disaster on French Island could just be getting started, yet La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said testing alone — which can only be done in a few labs in the country — has been costly.

“The city has spent several hundred thousand dollars already, and this is really just on the investigation,” Kabat said Monday on La Crosse Talk PM. “There hasn’t been any monies, really developed to this point for a long-term solution, and that’s why we’re suing the manufacturers, because they’re the ones that should be paying all of us to deal with the water supply and deal with damages.”

It’s an issue that La Crosse mayoral candidate Mitch Reynolds has brought up both on WIZM last week, and online.

“I’m angry about these PFAS chemicals and how they impact the private wells on French Island as well as how they may impact the giant sand aquifer underground that nearly every home in La Crosse draws its water from,” Reynolds wrote. “We should all be angry for those in the past who didn’t bother to consider how dumping these chemicals on the ground might be hazardous at some point in the future.”

The city’s lawsuits went out late last week.

“We are suing, I believe it’s more than a dozen of the chemical companies that manufacture these substances,” Kabat said, “and knew, decades ago, that these things were really bad and that they didn’t go away and if they got into the ground, or groundwater, that they were going to cause problems.”

The city seems to be taking the blame at this point, while trying to provide some relief with bottled water and help figure out a more permanent solution.

As La Crosse sent out lawsuits, more could be coming. Campbell residents have begun the process of going after the city, serving La Crosse more than 100 notices of potential lawsuits, Kabat said.

“I don’t really think the city is the bad actor here,” Kabat said. “I think it’s the … I know it’s the chemical manufacturers, and we are caught in the middle. In some ways, we are a victim in this, as well, because we found PFAS in one of our own municipal wells that we have since shut down.”

Kabat brought up being caught in the middle because, while the chemical companies knew PFAS would be harmful, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) also mandated that airport fire departments, like La Crosse, have to use the foam.

The next step, or continuing step, for the area, is trying to figure out just how much of the water is contaminated. The city is trying to provide testing, while other residents are doing their own tests, Kabat said.

Tracking a chemical in groundwater appears to be fairly impossible, since that water could end up, seemingly anywhere — and maybe it is.

“As we are learning more about the extent of PFAS and possible sources of contamination, the concern is only growing because we’re seeing test results in other places, outside the plum from the airport,” Kabat said. “So that tells me that there are potentially other sources of contamination, besides the airport.

“And that really then leads to a need for collaboration between the city, the town, the county and the state to come up with a comprehensive testing program to work toward a long-term solution. “

Meanwhile, the French Island library is now reporting elevated levels of PFAS chemicals in its water. 

La Crosse County supervisor Dan Ferries says the county library board was told this week of a higher PFAS count in the Campbell library, close to the airport. 

Ferries tells the full county board that he expects library officials to ask for assistance from the city. 

Host of WIZM's La Crosse Talk PM | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate | Hometown: Greenville, Wis | Avid noonball basketball player and sand volleyballer in La Crosse

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