Read the full article by Ben Meyer (wxpr)

“A WXPR investigation has found over a seven-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the City of Rhinelander spread almost 400 tons of sewage sludge at the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport. 

Later, the city built two municipal water wells near the place where some of the sludge was spread. Last year, those wells were found to have high levels of PFAS, a chemical with known health risks.

Now, a nationally-recognized expert on PFAS and sludge says the contamination in the city’s water could have come from sludge spread three decades ago.

Roger Freund helped pick the spot for one of the two now-contaminated wells decades ago.

‘Where we could get enough [water] for a decent well and water quality is what we were looking for,’ Freund said.

Freund was Rhinelander’s water supervisor before retiring 16 years ago.

In 2007, a few years after he retired, Well 7 was completed, and in 2014, so was nearby Well 8. Together, they could provide 900 gallons per minute of water to the city.

But last year, both were shut down after testing revealed the wells were producing water with high levels of PFAS compounds. When ingested by humans, those so-called ‘forever chemicals’ can lead to higher cholesterol, thyroid disease, and even cancer.

When Freund was exploring the future well site long ago, he didn’t consider testing for PFAS, because, like for many water operators, he hadn’t even heard of it at the time.

“That’s right,” he said. “But it is something now that, now that they know it’s there, it’s something you would test for.”

It’s impossible to say what pre-drilling PFAS testing would have revealed. But now, we know what might be a contributing factor to the PFAS contamination.

WXPR’s investigation revealed between 1987 and 1993, the City of Rhinelander spread or injected 390.11 tons of sewage sludge from its wastewater treatment plant at the airport. Sludge is the solid or liquid material left over when wastewater is purified and returned to waterways. It’s commonly, and legally, spread on agricultural fields and other land for disposal.

Images of the city’s records of sludge spreading over the seven-year period, some of them faded, are below.

Retired airport director Joe Brauer remembers how the sludge-spreading system worked.

‘I believe the truck that they used at the time was about 1,000 gallons. They did it probably two, maybe three times a day, four days out of the week,’ Brauer said. ‘They did have injectors in it, when they worked, so it would inject the sludge into the ground.’

The sludge was spread all over the airport property, Brauer recalled, but some of it definitely was near where the wells were later built.

Could tons of sludge spread three decades ago account for PFAS contamination in the wells today?

It’s absolutely possible, said Dr. Rolf Halden, a professor at Arizona State University whose research includes PFAS in sludge. The topic is included in his new book, Environment.

Halden’s research has shown sewage sludge nearly always contains PFAS, since PFAS is in products we use every day and their waste.

‘They get into the wastewater treatment plant. They accumulate in sludge,’ he said. ‘What does that sludge look like? Well, it looks like exactly what we’re doing, and since we’re using these chemicals everywhere, the sludge everywhere also contains this type of chemistry.’

PFAS, including when spread as sludge, often doesn’t go far or break down…”