City of La Crosse testing 130 private wells near airport for possible contamination

City Well Test Map
This city of La Crosse map shows part of the area near the La Crosse Regional Airport where the city is testing private wells at the city's expense.

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — The city of La Crosse is testing up to 130 private wells — at the city’s expense — downstream from the La Crosse Regional Airport in the town of Campbell for possible contamination.

The tests are the result of findings from tests done in August found PFA contamination similar to that which prompted the city to shut down Well 23, between the airport and the Black River, in 2016, says John Storlie of the OS Group, which is the city’s environmental consultant.

In 2019, the city also took nearby Well 24 offline except for emergency firefighting use.

The city has mailed information packets to affected residents and businesses, and Mayor Tim Kabat presided over a virtual information session Thursday in which he, Storlie and other officials addressed the issue and answered questions from the public.

The testing is the result of mid-August groundwater tests that raised concerns, even though PFA levels were below danger levels, Storlie said.

PFAs — polyfluoroalkyl substances to chemical geeks — are manmade and known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment or the human body, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The contaminants are found in firefighting foams like those used at the La Crosse and other airports, as well as in nonstick products such as Teflon, polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, fast-food packaging, and other sources.

Among other things, PFAs can contribute to high cholesterol, immune deficiencies, thyroid problems, fertility issues, and low birth weights, said Curtis Hedman of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, who participated in the virtual meeting.

City crews completed 44 well tests by end of day Thursday, and the others will be on tap soon, Storlie said.

Results are expected within three to four weeks, and residents will be notified via mail or email, he said.

If any of the results are cause for alarm, Storlie said he will call the landowners.

The testing area generally is south of Bainbridge Street and the west side of First Avenue West south of Fanta Reed Road.

A virtual participant who lives in the vicinity but outside the boundaries of the testing areas asked whether the city would test private wells at the owners’ expense.

Storlie acknowledged that possibility, although he noted the test is expensive and would cost the owners $425.

“That’s a lot of money, and we’re not recommending it because the sample area” is most suspect, he said.

If results indicate otherwise, the free test area could be expanded, he said.

In answer to questions about city action if contamination surfaces, Kabat said possibilities are being considered, depending on the scope. Remediation possibilities include city water supply and filtration, he said.

In the short term, Storlie said, supplying bottled water would be the initial step.

Kabat cited “the irony and the challenge” in handling PFAs contamination, which is blamed on a certain type of firefighting foam used at the airport.

The city’s fire department has eliminated use of the foam elsewhere, but the Federal Aviation Administration still requires its use at airports, leaving local officials with a problem, he said.

“The irony is that, even though it is known as harmful,” the FAA requires it.

The contamination at the airport is blamed mostly on firefighting drills at test burn pits north of Well 23, as well after a jet crash in 2001 where the foam was used extensively, Kabat said.

Another source was the need to test firetruck nozzles that contained foam, he said.

“We didn’t know this was dangerous back in the day,” the mayor said.

A link on the city’s website details the contamination and testing plans.

The city also has a dedicated phone number, (608) 668-2718, where callers can have questions answered, Storlie said.