MILWAUKEE — A Wisconsin company failed to report the release of hazardous materials at a property in Marinette that resulted in some residents unknowingly drinking contaminated water for years, the state Department of Natural Resources said.
The DNR has referred the matter to the state Department of Justice for civil prosecution, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
The agency alleges that a unit of Glendale-based Johnson Controls failed to inform state officials that it knew that so-called forever chemicals had been found at a fire training facility in northeastern Wisconsin and did not take steps to minimize their impact.
Johnson Controls said in a statement Friday that it believed the contamination was confined to its property and that it wasn’t obligated to notify authorities when the chemicals were first detected.
Johnson Controls’ Tyco Fire Products uses the perfluorinated chemicals in the manufacture of fire retardants. For decades, the compounds have been an essential ingredient in firefighting chemicals and have been used at its training site on the edge of town.
The chemicals resist breaking down in the environment and have been discovered in private wells in the Marinette area. They also have been found in trace levels in the municipal water system, and they have turned up in local streams and offshore in Green Bay.
Epidemiology studies that were cited in a federal report last year suggested that the compounds can lead to increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, thyroid disease, asthma, decreased fertility, some cancers and a drop in responses to vaccines.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in February that state records showed that Tyco had test results of soil and well contamination from the chemicals on its property dating back to October 2013 as part an effort to remove long-standing gasoline compounds from the property.
In November 2017, Tyco reported that it believed the chemicals had spread outside its 380-acre fire technology center, where testing and training have gone on since at least 1962.
The following month, the company began distributing bottled water to residents whose private wells might have been affected.
Tyco and Johnson Controls are currently providing bottled water to 125 residents. The companies have installed 38 water treatment systems on properties.
Douglas Oitzinger, a former mayor of Marinette, said Tyco should have responded quicker.
“If you have a forest fire going on your property, you don’t assume that it’s not going to jump to the neighbors’ property and you don’t report it,” Oitzinger said.
The pollution problems first came to light under the industry-friendly administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who was replaced in January by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
“I don’t know if this reflects a normal process, or if this is attributed to a change in administrations,” Oitzinger said. “But I think it was pretty clear cut that Johnson Controls, or Tyco at the time, had an obligation to report this in 2013 and they didn’t do it.”