News 8 Now Investigates sources of PFAS contamination on French Island

The city of La Crosse has taken responsibility only for the contamination south and east of the airport. Homeowners to the west say the city is responsible for their contamination too

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — The city of LCrosse wants the state to help identify all the sources of drinking water contamination affecting hundreds of homes on French Island. The wells are contaminated with PFAS.

The man-made compounds were used to produce the firefighting foam sprayed at the LCrosse Regional Airport for decades. The city has taken responsibility only for the contamination south and east of the airport. Some say the city is ignoring its responsibility to homeowners to the west. 

The view from the shoreline is breathtaking, but it’s what you can’t see that leaves Denise Roland breathless. “The problem is on Lake Shore Drive this end where we were all told it wasn’t going to be a problem,” says Roland. 

The Rolands’ water is contaminated with PFAS — dangerous man-made compounds linked to infertility, thyroid disease and cancer.

“We got the official letter that says don’t drink the water, don’t brush your teeth with your water. Don’t do anything with your water,” Roland says.

The city of LCrosse has taken responsibility for contaminating more than 100 private wells to the south and east of the airport. The city’s consultant says that’s the direction firefighting foam, produced with PFAS and sprayed at the airport for decades, spread through the groundwater. But the Rolands’ well and dozens of others that have tested positive for PFAS are west of the airport.

Denise says she knows why: Iit didn’t take me much for me to find it. So, I don’t think it would have taken much effort for anyone else.”

Denise found an NTSB aircraft accident report on the internet dated Nov. 9, 1970, documenting a plane crash west of the airport and feet from the Roland’s back door.  

The crash isn’t listed on the city of LCrosse’s investigation maps. News 8 Now asked Mayor Tim Kabat why. He said he didn’t have enough information.

“Was foam used at the plane crash? Is the documentation to support that? Was it the La Crosse Fire Department or could it have been the Town of Campbell that responded to the plane crash at that time in 1970? I think there are a lot more questions than answers,” Kabat says.

News 8 Now found the answers in the city’s archives. Tucked away in a corner of the LCrosse library, thousands of newspaper headlines are saved on microfilm. One is about a plane that crashed just short of the runway on Novv. 9, 1970. It includes photo of what’s left of an airplane and the caption “Foam sprayed on wreckage by LCrosse Fire Department.” 

“I can’t fathom how the city spent two years and a half a million dollars on a site investigation and not even know about this significant plane crash,” says Tim Jacobson, an Onalaska attorney who represents hundreds of homeowners living all around the airport with PFAS-contaminated wells.

Jacobson contends the city of LCrosse is responsible for the contamination. “They are now pointing their finger at some other unnamed culprits, that there must be some other source of contamination, while they continue to ignore these known source areas is completely reckless and irresponsible,” says Jacobson. 

La Crosse Mayor Kabat asked News 8 Now for a copy of the newspaper, but did not respond when we asked repeatedly whether the city planned to add the 1970 crash to its list of possible contamination sites. “It’s a proven fact we had airport foam right in our backyard, there is no reason that shouldn’t be included. It should have been included a long time ago.”, says Roland. Homeowners like Denise are caught up in the controversy. West of the airport and at the center of contamination. 

In December of 2020, the city of LCrosse notified the DNR of an accidental spill of the foam produced with PFAS. It took place near the airport terminal, and according to the city, was cleaned up immediately. That spill was also not included in the city’s investigation.