FRENCH ISLAND—Jim Boisen and Margie Walker conceived of their single-story residence as a “forever home.”
They moved in 1979 to Wisconsin’s French Island, an unincorporated community of 4,300 that forms a picturesque piece of the Driftless Area between the Black and Mississippi rivers in the town of Campbell.
When told her Second Avenue house is beautiful, Margie, 76, jokingly asks, “You wanna buy it?”
Jim and Margie’s home sits atop a toxic plume of PFAS that has infiltrated their private groundwater well and disrupted life across the island.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of more than 12,000 humanmade compounds. The group of “forever chemicals” accumulate in the environment and human bodies. PFAS are ubiquitous in consumer and industrial products, including certain firefighting foams, and people primarily ingest them through drinking water.
Scientists have linked two of the most widely researched such chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, to health problems including altered hormone levels, decreased birth weight, hypertension in pregnancy and certain cancers.
Manufacturers knew, and concealed, the hazards for decades.
Virtually no amount of PFAS are safe for consumption, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In June, it updated its draft health advisories for PFOA and PFOS to miniscule levels—0.004 parts per trillion and 0.02 ppt, respectively.
PFAS are manifesting in waters across Wisconsin. In 2020 and 2021, labs detected PFAS in nearly 98% of the 539 private drinking wells sampled in Campbell—contaminants that likely were present for years.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources asks polluters to provide emergency bottled water to residents until the contaminants are mitigated or another solution is found. The agency provides water at state expense if no responsible party exists or the polluter is unwilling or unable to do so. Jim and Margie are among 1,350-plus French Island households who have received bottles through either the city of La Crosse or DNR.
But those lifelines could disappear due to a lawsuit that has implications for the 1.7 million Wisconsinites, roughly one-third of the state’s population, who rely on private wells.
An industry group sued the DNR in 2021, arguing that the agency can’t force polluters to clean up hazardous PFAS spills without first creating rules.
The loss of government-provided water would leave residents with stark choices: depart their homes, pay thousands of dollars for their own jugs or knowingly consume toxic chemicals.
“In many ways, it feels like we are being held hostage,” Campbell Supervisor Lee Donahue said.
Crash and burn
On June 16, 2001, a 1950s-era two-seater jet smashed into the ground during an airshow at the La Crosse Regional Airport.
Fire consumed the deformed fuselage, just blocks away from Jim and Margie’s home. PFAS presumably sunk into the ground from the firefighting foam used to extinguish the wreckage.
The concussion reverberates years later. That’s what Jim and Margie learned when a city contractor tested their well in November 2020.
It contained PFOA and PFOS in the amount of 70 ppt along with a cocktail of 10 other PFAS. The total concentration was 12.5 times higher than what the Wisconsin Department of Health Services considers hazardous.
A La Crosse contractor in 2019 documented several other PFAS hotspots beneath the airport. Spills occurred on the terminal apron and possibly at the airport’s former fire station. Staff also annually collected foam samples from firefighting equipment west of the airport taxiway, as the Federal Aviation Administration required.
During the 1970s through 1988, the La Crosse Fire Department and airport personnel participated in staged burns. They ignited industrial waste solvents in pits and practiced extinguishing the flames using PFAS-containing foam.
The La Crosse airport no longer uses the foam during practice drills. Wisconsin lawmakers limited its use in 2020 to emergencies or equipment tests inside facilities with special containment and disposal protocols.
The DNR asked the city to provide bottled water to residents whose wells exceed state health recommendations. City and county officials requested assistance, prompting the DHS to issue an island-wide drinking water advisory in March 2021. That made all French Island residents eligible for temporary emergency water.
Death by 1,000 concessions
Each month, Culligan workers stuff a half-dozen jugs of water into Jim and Margie’s coat closet. Each weighs 40 pounds. When Jim wants a glass of water, he catches himself gliding toward the sink. He stops. Then reroutes to the Culligan machine.
Without clean water, residents rethink their routine decisions. They forget that their taps are polluted, errantly rinsing toothbrushes under the faucet or gargling in the shower.
Then they remember: They must give up these things for their health.Death by 1,000 concessions.
French Islanders recall friends and family who developed cancer and wonder whether PFAS were to blame.
Jim noticed a lump on his neck about two years after moving to French Island. Doctors removed the growth, which was attached to his thyroid. It returned this year, and Jim remains under observation for cancer.
Losing emergency water would amplify the couple’s burdens.
The cost would be “huge,” said Margie, a retired Gundersen Health System employee. Jim, a former truck driver and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said they barely make their tax payments and fear losing their house. The fret wears on them during retirement.
“This ‘golden years’ is a bunch of s—-,” Jim said, his voice cracking. “This has knocked our golden years right down the tubes.”
Spills law targeted
During a July press conference on French Island, Gov. Tony Evers announced the state would sue the 3M Company, DuPont and other manufacturers of PFAS-containing materials. The Democrat described emergency bottled water as a Band-Aid, not a solution.
A separate legal challenge from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby, threatens to rip the bandage off.
WMC sued the DNR last year on behalf of an Oconomowoc dry cleaning business after the agency directed the owners to address spilled PFAS on the property.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys say DNR cannot enforce the order on a substance that hasn’t been subject to rulemaking. The up to 30-month process would entail adopting a list of substances and thresholds that make them hazardous—subject to legislative approval.
Without knowing how the DNR defines a hazardous substance, WMC called it “impossible for a party to know when they are required to report” spills.
The DNR says a court loss would strip its authority to compel clean-ups and provide emergency water under Wisconsin’s long-standing spills law.
Several French Island families filed affidavits in the case, describing economic hardships they would face without bottled water. Some have considered moving and lament the challenges of selling their homes.
In April, a judge sided with WMC but later delayed the effect of his order while the DNR appeals.
The agency has declined to comment during the litigation. WMC didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Legal experts call the spills law versatile because it defines hazardous substances broadly. That contrasts with other states and the federal government, which allow for both the listing of hazardous compounds individually and designate hazardous substances through other criteria, said Steph Tai, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor.
But regulation of PFAS is difficult given there are thousands of such chemicals.
La Crosse detected PFAS in a French Island well as early as 2014. From June 2017 through April 2019, utility staff attempted to flush PFAS from the well. Under a DNR permit, they pumped PFOA- and PFOS-laden water—with some concentrations as high as 210 ppt—into the Black River. That was before the state issued health advisories for PFAS.
Testing in 2018 and 2019 detected PFAS in a second island well. Staff shuttered both wells as a precaution before the DNR determined that the airport contamination posed a threat and ordered further investigation.
City officials did not publicly notify island residents for an additional 17 months—after testing confirmed that PFAS had possibly reached private wells.
“They left us continuing to drink that water for years,” said island resident Amanda Hartley, 38, whose family’s well water measured 4.8 ppt for PFOA and PFOS and nearly double the public health standard for a third PFAS known as PFHxS.
“You just have to wonder, did you poison your family?”
Residents sought explanations during an October 2020 information session. John Storlie, a city-contracted consultant from The OS Group, said officials initially believed that PFAS existed only near the practice burn pits.
“The knowledge about these chemicals is evolving very quickly,” responded Storlie, who declined to speak to Wisconsin Watch.
La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds took office in April 2021—three months after calling the situation in Campbell potentially “disastrous” for the city.
“If the city of La Crosse is in a position where it’s made a phenomenal mess—unwittingly, to be clear—through this PFAS contamination, they better do something about it,” he said during an online forum.
Reynolds did not answer emailed questions from Wisconsin Watch. Instead, he summarized city efforts to address PFAS. Those included securing $3.73 million in federal spending to treat city wells for contamination, offering to connect French Island neighborhoods to city water and negotiating a new water agreement with Campbell. That offer was contingent upon annexation.
Campbell officials delivered a draft water agreement to La Crosse in March 2022 that would exclude annexation, but the city has yet to respond. Reynolds recently said during a meeting that negotiating a new agreement was not a high city priority, Campbell’s attorney said.
At least 787 French Island residents have filed notices of claim against La Crosse—precursors to lawsuits or legal settlements. For their part, the city and some island residents sued 23 PFAS manufacturers, including 3M and Tyco Fire Products.
A 3M spokesperson said in a statement that the company “acted responsibly in connection with its manufacture and sale of PFAS” and “will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.” A Tyco spokesperson declined to comment.
Jim Boisen wants answers.
“I’m not the type of person who is looking for a million-dollar settlement or something, but I want some satisfaction,” he said. “My wife, my kids, my grandkids—I won’t be around long enough probably to see what happens to them as a result of this. But until the day I die, I’ll be thinking about it.”