MARINETTE—Marinette residents turned out in thin numbers but thick with passion to an open house convened by State Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) at the Wisconsin Maritime Center of Excellence in the city Thursday afternoon.
The momentum behind that passion primarily burgeoned under the voice of a single attendee at the open house and the weight of approximately four years of ongoing and growing frustration over the Marinette and Town of Peshtigo area’s per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination issue.
Marinette resident Andi Rich provided that voice of passion, engaging Wimberger in a discussion that sometimes escalated to the point of respectable debate over PFAS contamination and its consequences. The dialogue circled around the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to establish enforceable standards and also touched on holding accountable those responsible parties whose operations resulted in the PFAS contamination of the groundwater across a large area of Marinette and TOP.
After decades of testing PFAS-containing firefighting foams at a nine-acre outdoor facility located on the property at the Tyco Fire Products LP, Fire Technology Center (FTC) in Marinette, a large plume of contaminated groundwater leached outward from the facility, resulting in the eventual contamination of private wells in TOP, the Marinette wastewater system and elsewhere. Scientific evident has revealed probable links between PFAS and adverse human health effects that include cancer.
The special chemical properties inherent in PFAS also made unique ingredients in aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) that firefighters use on high-hazard and extreme temperature flammable liquid fires, on which water is ineffective. For decades AFFF served as an efficient fire suppression method. However, due to their potential human toxicity and their long half-life, which makes them persistent in the environment, many fire departments and other industries and businesses are phasing them out.
Since 2018, when Tyco officially reported to the DNR of the contamination of PFAS into the environment surrounding the FTC, federal and state governments have been slow to act when it comes to legislation on PFAS chemicals, according to many proponents who seek a strong hand in regulatory standards for PFAS.
At several points throughout the open house conversation, Rich repeated the same question to Wimberger. In fact, it was that pressing question that opened up the PFAS discord Thursday. It became the domineering topic for upwards of an hour.
“I’d like to know what you have planned to address the PFAS issue,” Rich said to Wimberger, later adding “What are you going to do to prevent further contamination … You are our elected official and you have the abilities to do things to help.”
The discussion turned quickly to the DNR’s rulemaking process, in which the DNR is currently engaged to develop standard levels of PFAS in various environmental mediums like groundwater. However, that rulemaking process only addresses two of the primary members of a family of PFAS chemicals that encompass over 4,700 substances. Those two substances include PFOA and PFOS.
Wimberger received his Juris Doctor and served as a Judge Advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps, Senior Defense Counsel at MCAS Iwakuni, Senior Legal Assistance Officer at MCAS Iwakuni, and Attorney-Adviser for the Department of the Navy Physical Evaluation Board. He also started a law practice in 2010. As an individual of the law and with a thorough background in that area, Wimberger expressed his belief in the system when it comes to sorting out issues like PFAS.
“We have adversarial judicial proceedings because what is true and right is oftentimes unclear,” he said, adding that over time, those differing opinions work to find common ground.
“You can’t begrudge the advancement of a society—especially coming from an industrial age,” he said. “things are messed up over time and you just try to figure it out. A lot of people’s lives were saved by PFAS (used on) high-temperature fires, so …we figure out what is wrong and try to fix it.”
While the debate reached no solutions on the PFAS front, Wimberger demonstrated his ability to listen to constituents who carry passion and frustration about issues directly impacting their lives. By the end of the open house, Wimberger conceded to call, directly, the DNR’s Division of Environmental Management Administrator Darsi Foss to try and learn more about progress on the PFAS front.
He made that call while still inside the Maritime Center, with Rich sitting across from him, listening in.
Understandably, Rich remained frustrated and angry over PFAS following the open house, but she admitted, Wimberger listened.
“I’m not mad at him. I don’t hate him,” she said. “I really genuinely like the fact that he talked to me for as long as he did and addressed issues that were important to me.”
But at the end of the day, Rich said she feels Wimberger has a lot more to learn about the specifics of the disruptions PFAS caused to livelihoods, property and the environments in which his constituents work, play, live and raise families.
Wimberger was born and raised in the Green Bay area and graduated from De Pere High School before attending college at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He drove a long-haul truck for Schneider National for a year after he graduated, and eventually enrolled at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee. He took the oath of office Jan. 4 as senator for the 30th Senate District. In a letter to the EagleHerald in February, he stated that he has plans for legislation on important issues like election integrity, improving our infrastructure, and dealing with PFAS contamination. Additionally, as chairman of the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, and as a Marine, he stated in that letter he plans to do all he can for veterans and their families.
The drive behind Wimberger’s visit entailed learning about his constituents, their communities and the issues they face. He also recognized the strengths and potential in Marinette, such as the big developments underway at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in preparation for the shipyard’s new contract to construct the U.S. Navy’s advanced Constellation class frigate.
“I’m just trying to figure out what needs to be figured out the best I can,” he said. “It’s a nice thing to see the development up here.”