French Island families with contaminated wells face long road to clean water

The City of La Crosse has not said whether it will pay the cost after taking responsibility for the contamination

TOWN OF CAMPBELL, Wis. (WKBT)- Dozens of families on French Island are drinking, cooking, and brushing their teeth with bottled water, after learning their wells are contaminated.

The City of La Crosse says the hazardous compound called PFAS as used the airport for years.  It spread through the groundwater and into the wells of surrounding homes.  Those families and their attorneys are asking the city to do the right thing and protect their health and property. 

 Home sweet home is anything but for dozens of families living near the La Crosse Regional Airport. “We’ve trusted them to be a good neighbor to us and it turns out they haven’t been,”, says Amanda Hartley. 

 In 2015, the City of La Crosse detected a dangerous man-made compound called PFAS in two city well near the airport. But; it wasn’t until this fall that city started testing for and found PFAS  in dozens of nearby private wells, including Hartley’s. “To think that whole time the water was bad, and people we cared about were drinking it.”

 PFAS was used to produce the fire-fighting foam sprayed at the airport for decades.  It wasn’t until the late 90’s that scientists learned exposure to small concentrations of PFAS, in drinking water, were linked to infertility, thyroid disease, and cancer. “It doesn’t take a lot of this compound to contaminate a lot of water. Essentially it takes, parts per billion, one drop in an Olympic swimming pool.”, explains Trevor Nobile, a Wisconsin DNR Remediation & Redevelopment Program Field Operations Manager.

 More than 100 Town of Campbell well tested so far, have detectable levels of PFAS. The city is only providing bottled water to 36 homes with levels above 20ppt; what the DNR considers safe. The families and their attorneys say that’s not enough. “We want to make sure they have access to clean water forever and that they are appropriately compensated for their loss of property value and other damages.”, says Attorney Tim Jacobson, who is representing some of the families.

 A city committee has set aside $25,000 to pay for bottled water. Its a shortterm solution. The affected homes will need clean water from a permanent source. So far, La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat hasn’t said who will cover the cost. “The city is exploring a class action lawsuits. Up to this point, quite frankly, the only threats of lawsuits have been directed towards the city. I’m not sure what the other lawsuits might be.” 

Hartley is hopeful this battle never enters the courtroom.  If it does, she’s willing to fight for her family and her neighbors.  “It’s only right that they work for us in this instance because, it’s not our fault.”

 The La Crosse City Council will meet January 14th to discuss the PFAS contamination. The City has already agreed to expand the well testing area. That work will begin by next week.

PFAS levels can change. The City agreed to re-test some wells that were just below the DNR’s proposed safety standard to find out if they too should be getting bottled water