Local officials announced Wednesday that they believe the additional PFAS contaminations being discovered on French Island are likely unrelated to the La Crosse Regional Airport.
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat spoke of the new development in the PFAS crisis during a Wednesday video conference after a meeting with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The city revealed earlier this year that around 100 private drinking water wells on French Island had been contaminated with PFAS, a “forever chemical” believed to have originated from firefighting foam required to be used at airports, including La Crosse’s. But more investigation has found that additional wells, outside of the city’s original scope, are also contaminated, possibly by another source, officials said.
“It’s clear by the results ... that there is something else going on besides firefighting foam at the La Crosse Regional Airport,” Kabat said.
He said the determination was based on groundwater and storm water patterns.
“The results that are west and south of the airport, they do not fit the groundwater flow or storm water flow,” Kabat said. “There is no scientific explanation for how PFAS would move from the airport to those areas, especially far west and far south. The science does not support that. It’s coming from somewhere else.”
He said other sources of contamination haven’t been identified.
“We don’t want to speculate what the other sources might be,” Kabat said.
The state issued a water advisory for all of the town of Campbell last week and is offering free bottled water to anyone on the island who needs it as they investigate the contamination further. Officials from the town of Campbell and La Crosse County were also part of the DNR meeting.
“Our meeting was very positive,” Kabat said. “I believe all parties involved pledged to work together.”
Kabat said the ultimate solution is to hold PFAS manufacturers accountable. He said Minnesota and Michigan have been “very aggressive” in pursuing the manufacturers and urged Wisconsin to “step in and show leadership.”
“The city can no longer tackle alone what is becoming an increasingly regional issue. The state’s resources, expertise and coordination are necessary to protect the citizens of Wisconsin,” Kabat said in the statement prior to the news conference.
“We have made this our highest priority and will continue to do so, but we can no longer do it ourselves. We have been solely addressing and bearing the steep costs of this issue for several years. It’s time for the state to step in with a wholistic approach to this serious problem,” he said.
Kabat’s request to the state and DNR were “echoed” by La Crosse County Board of Supervisors chair Monica Kruse, the statement said.
Kabat said he asked the state for more testing, investigation and drinking water.
He said the city is still in the process of preparing a PFAS waiver request with the Federal Aviation Administration, which mandates use of the chemical as a fire extinguisher. He said the process is complicated by identifying a substitute for PFAS.
“We have pretty much pulled that together, but it’s not as simple as just drafting a letter and requesting it,” Kabat said. “I would fully expect that should go out relatively soon.”
The airport is bordered by the Mississippi and Black rivers, and Kabat said PFAS has been found in both bodies of water.
Kabat said the DNR is looking to schedule another public information meeting in April.
Dr. Paul Molling has lived in La Crosse nearly all his life and practiced medicine for over two decades, but the coronavirus brought him new perspectives on both the community and the career that he loves.
Over the past 12 months, Molling has seen and experienced the distress and turmoil, but also the sense of camaraderie and compassion in the Coulee Region, and it was together, he says, that we have been able to turn the tides on the pandemic and move toward a place of hope.
Molling, born and raised in La Crosse and a physician at Mayo Clinic Health System, recalls “we were all scared when we had this unknown entity coming at us called COVID — nobody truly understood it.” Not much was yet known about the virus, but quite evident was its highly contagious, rapidly spreading nature.
“I think we put measures in place very quickly to mitigate as much as we possibly could — getting set up for the testing very promptly within that first week of the breakout here in our local region,” Molling says. Utilizing testing, social distancing and masking, case rates stayed relatively low until the start of the school year, when the numbers rose swiftly through the fall and early winter.
“It was very concerning what would happen to our hospitals, and we went into crisis mode,” Molling says. “And everybody did a fantastic job here locally and within our hospitals to help quell that and care for our patients.”
Hospitals, including Mayo, began to see success in treating patients with medications and helping prevent COVID patients from needing hospitalization by using monoclonal antibody infusions. Healthcare workers were feeling the fatigue of long hours in PPE and stressful shifts, but showed fortitude, Molling says, buoyed by the support of the community.
“This is a very special special community and everybody looks out for each other. People were stepping up, saying ‘Hey, what can we do to what can we help?’ Everybody wanted to be part of the solution and that is powerful,” Molling says. Donations of food, words of encouragement — “They were so appreciated. We are very, very fortunate.”
Having the extra guidance from Mayo Clinic in Rochester helped Mayo’s local sites work through the pandemic, Molling says, who notes “the responsiveness of Mayo Clinic nationwide has been so impressive, and to be able to have the world’s experts at your fingertips and helping solve these problems was unbelievable — just a phone call away.”
Just as Mayo, Gundersen Health System and the La Crosse County Health Department moved quickly to organize and offer testing, when the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in December sites were swiftly set up. Though they were physically and mentally drained from the pandemic, the vaccine rollout underscored the dedication of local healthcare workers, and the emergence of the safe and effective shots put “a spring in their step.”
“Everybody’s chipped in — volunteers stepped up when we opened the vaccine site. We had nurses calling us asking ‘Can I come help? I want to be part of the solution,’” Molling says. “People were tired but they’re resilient and now it’s hope and optimism ... people are smiling, people are happy, supportive and very thankful.”
Community members as a whole are feeling a sense of relief as more and more individuals become inoculated and herd immunity moves towards a reality. With over 70% of the population needing to be vaccinated to reach that status, Molling emphasizes masking, distancing and sanitation must continue, and there may be case peaks, though less extreme, along the way.
“We’ll see little pockets of breakouts here and there, and we just need to be able to act on it quickly,” Molling says.
Molling hopes handshakes and hugs will safely resume in time, but says it would serve us well if some of the precautions that have become common practice during the pandemic continue indefinitely. Flu cases have remained low during the coronavirus crisis, proving the effectiveness of distancing, hand hygiene and masking in preventing viral spread. Adults, while previously prone to powering through illness to go to work, should continue to stay home if they are ill, and children too should not be in school if they cold or flu like symptoms.
“We’ve become a society of not protecting each other, oftentimes being out in the community when we’re not feeling well,” Molling says. “This new focus and attention on how we take care of ourselves and how we protect each other — I think that will be something to be learned from the pandemic.”
While not yet safe to toss the masks aside and bring the masses together, a return to parties and vacation flights seems not too far off.
Molling is looking forward to travel and spending Christmas with his extended clan, the tradition of some four dozen family members coming together for the holiday put on pause last year.
Says Molling, “I miss those gatherings,” but, he iterates, “We’re coming to the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The city of La Crosse Judiciary & Administration Committee gave its recommendation in favor of a new affordable housing apartment complex in the Washburn Neighborhood, after the project was nearly voted down by the La Crosse Common Council last month.
Rezoning for the 12-unit apartment building, proposed at the corner of Division Street and Fifth Avenue, was approved after some continued debate between officials and neighbors.
When the project was first brought to the city last month, some neighbors pushed back, fearful over a bad history with the landlord and concern that affordable units would bring in unsavory tenants and traffic.
But a handful of officials showed a change of heart and voted to give the property managers another month to pitch the project to the neighborhood.
Leaders with Reliant Real Estate Solutions, which would manage the property for the owner, said they did not revisit the Washburn Neighborhood during the 30 days, but instead stated that a majority of neighbors are in favor of the plan.
“I think that I have spoken to at least 10 people,” who are in favor, said Aaron Wickesberg with Reliant. “The city clerk issued this info off to the buffer zone, and we have greater than 80% that are not objecting, and a lot of those are people we have spoken to.”
The plan as of Tuesday night had eight signed letters of objection filed with the city.
“This is a challenging neighborhood,” said Aaron Wickesberg with Reliant. He said he spoke to one outspoken neighbor again Tuesday and was alarmed by his comments.
“I was extremely discouraged in my conversations with him today,” Wickesberg said. “Some of the ignorant and seemingly racist comments he said to me on the phone today makes me wonder, is this neighborhood really ready for change?
“He initially endorsed the plan, but said, ‘You know what, your rents are way too low. I don’t want low-income housing in my neighborhood.’ And that is defeating the purpose here.
“I think, personally, we all need to stand up and say that hate has no home in this neighborhood, and the comments that were directed to me and my clients today were probably the worst comments that I’ve heard in quite some time.”
Some city officials agreed, worried that a persistent group of neighbors is leading the opposition to the project and those similar to it.
“Frankly, I understand the concerns of the neighborhood, but I also understand that oft-times these concerns are from the most vocal people in the neighborhood,” said council president Martin Gaul, “which I do not take anything away from their concerns.
“But I will say that there’s an over-rationalization of reasons not to look at a project like this that I find offensive. I think that the issues that are brought up of people when the rents are too low, that’s obviously going to attract a certain class of people we don’t want in our neighborhoods. I vehemently disagree with that context, frankly.
“These projects are just exactly what we need. We cannot advocate for affordable housing on a continual basis and each time one of these projects presents itself say, ‘No we can’t,” he said. “We can’t have it both ways.
“I think these are exactly the kinds of projects that the council needs to be brave enough and strong enough to step forward when they’re presented and approve them,” Gaul said, noting that the council should respect the steps the owner has taken to improve his properties.
Council member Gary Padesky, who was an early member to switch his vote, agreed with Gaul.
“For people to assume that people who are having some problems in life and need lower income housing are all going to be involved with drugs and everything else, I think is just sad,” Padesky said.
Still, some council members were disappointed that Reliant and its team did not reach out to the Washburn Neighborhood again with the additional time.
“We had this month for this delay and this referral so that there could be some talks with the neighbors,” said council member Chris Kahlow, one of the no votes out of the Plan Commission Monday. “Nothing new has come of that. I had hoped that there was some conversations that went on.”
“I am a believer in bottom-up government. I think that the residents who lay their heads on their pillows at night in that neighborhood know what’s best for it, and that is why when it comes to a tough issue like this I will side with the neighbors,” Kahlow said.
“I would like to say also that one person who may be biased and racist does not label the entire neighborhood and all those residents in such a way,” she added.
One neighbor spoke to the committee Tuesday night, emphasizing the several different reasons she and others were against the project, including additional vehicle traffic, and opposing comments that disagreements with the project have to do with biases.
“It has nothing to do with anyone’s skin color, it has nothing to do with making a scapegoat out of anyone,” said Kelly Becker, who said no property owner within 200 feet of the proposal is in favor.
“If you really want to hear what the people think, then they need to talk to the people, and he did not talk to any of us, and he did not go to the Washburn meeting that was held last week,” Becker said.
The proposed $1.2 million project would demolish the existing building at the corner of Fifth and Division, which has sat largely vacant for several years. In place of it would be a 12-unit apartment building and parking lot, with rents ranging from $750-850.
The rezoning, which would pave way for the housing project, goes before the La Crosse Common Council next Thursday, April 8.