“A mass of gray clouds loomed over a panorama of humid wetlands in late summer on the Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin. Carpets of bright-green grass blanketed the glassy surface of the water, accented here and there by clusters of purple loosestrife, a spiky invasive plant, as an aluminum skiff glided silently over the water. Edith Leoso, tribal historic preservation officer for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, leaned over the edge of the boat, running her hand across the bushy grass tips and loosening showers of wild rice. “If it sinks to the bottom, that means it’s ripe,” she said.
The wild rice is sacred to the Ojibwe, also called Chippewa. “We were from the East Coast, originally,” she told me. “There was a prophecy that said there would be a light-skinned race that would come across the great salt water. In their coming, they would bring destruction upon us. In order to maintain our way of life, to maintain who we were as a people, we would have to move to the West.” There would be signs along the way: “We would know when we arrived at our final stopping place when we saw food that grew on top of the water,” Leoso said. “That was our manoomin. … ‘Mino’ in our language is good, and ‘min’ is seed. So, ‘good seed.’ ”
The rice grows on the Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs, which sitatop 16,000 acres of wetlands on the southern rim of Lake Superior. The area serves as a spawning ground forlake sturgeon, walleye, yellow perch and northern pike. Both fish and wild rice are staple foods of the Anishinaabe, as the Ojibwe call themselves.
Early last year, the state of Wisconsin issued a fish consumption advisory that recommended eating no more than one meal a month of Lake Superior rainbow smelt, caught by tribes and local anglers during smelt runs in the spring. It was the first advisory for any of the Great Lakes warning of fish with elevated levels of PFAS — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of man-made chemicals linked to cancer that have shown up in drinking water systems around the country.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment. After years of industrial use, the federal government recently took steps to regulate them. But will it be enough to assure the safety of the Indigenous people who have fished on the lake for thousands of years — and depend on the fish for survival?
A few days earlier, I was in a small plane flying over the deep green forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The plane shook violently from turbulence as it approached Keweenaw Bay, a V-shaped inlet on the southern shore of the lake. A thin layer of smoke had settled on the water, blown in from wildfires burning hundreds of miles away in Canada.
The lake tribes live in close-knit communities that I knew I’d need help to access. So, I retained a local, Charlie Rasmussen, to advise me on various aspects of the trip: He warned me about spotty cellphone coverage, which roads were under construction and where deer liked to dart out in front of traffic; he also gave me leads on locals I could speak to about fishing. (He is a writer, photographer and communications officer for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nonprofit that supports member tribes through natural resources management, conservation and public information. But his work with me was in a freelance capacity.)
A rental car secured, I drove an hour south along Highway 41, to the L’Anse Reservation, where a pocket of woods was quiet but for water spilling over a mossy rock ledge. Jerry Jondreau was trying to catch brook trout on Silver River, which twists its way through the reservation. The reservation is home to the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), one of about a dozen bands, including the Bad River Band, who live around the lake.
The lake itself is often hailed for being the cleanest of the Great Lakes. But Jondreau said its pristine reputation is a misconception. “I can’t bring fish back to the family from the lake,” he explained. “We don’t eat as much fish as we used to.”
Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake on Earth by surface area, spanning a vast 31,700 square miles. Surrounded by dense forests and relatively sparse populations, more than 80 species of fish live in its cold, remote waters. While the fish are abundant, they’re rife with contaminants: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, the pesticide toxaphene — all linked to cancer — and mercury, left behind as a legacy of mining in a rugged region known as Copper Country. There are enough pollutants now circulating in the great lake that Michigan lists more than a dozen consumption advisories for its fish, and the pollution runs headlong into areas where tribes practice subsistence fishing.
On a windy August afternoon, the choppy waters around Lake Superior’s Madeline Island glittered with flecks of sunshine. Boats headed north, fishing poles straining toward wakes churning behind them. In 2019, Wisconsin scientists took samples from fish swimming near the island, considered the spiritual homeland of the Ojibwe. Six fish species had detectable levels of PFAS — and rainbow smelt had an average of seven times the amount of PFAS that were found in the other fish, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It was enough to trigger the January 2021 consumption advisory for Wisconsin waters. Two months later, Minnesota and Michigan followed suit with their own advisories.
PFAS were introduced to Americans in the 1940s. Prized for their resistance to heat, oil and water, they were key ingredients in products like Scotchgard and Teflon. Today, they’re found in food packaging, carpets, furniture, clothing, makeup and everyday household items like dental floss. They’re used on an industrial scale in nonstick and waterproof coatings, electronics, degreasers and fire foams. The chemicals have been linked to a host of serious health problems: high cholesterol, liver damage, suppression of the immune system, thyroid disease, kidney and testicular cancer, among others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some take years to be eliminated from the human body.
“They dissolve easily in water,” says environmental engineer Christy Remucal, who studies PFAS in her lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Remucal was not involved in the testing of the Lake Superior fish.) So, the chemicals move around the environment fairly easily, she told me — and there are thousands of them. One of these, called PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid — found at airports and military sites with histories of fire foam use — tends to build up in fish.
But Michigan scientists were puzzled when the little smelt showed higher levels of PFOS than larger, predator fish such as lake trout. “Typically, the higher up on a food chain that you go, you’re going to have higher levels of contamination,” explains Brandon Armstrong, an aquatic biologist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), referring to a process called biomagnification. “It was surprising to see such a high level of PFOS in smelt because they feed low on the food chain,” he says. “They’re eating small fish and zooplankton out in the glades. They’re not a top-predator species.”
Smelt is just one among many fish that tribal communities in the lake basin depend on. Indeed, food sovereignty was a cornerstone of 19th-century treaties in which the Ojibwe ceded millions of acres and retained their rights to fish, hunt and gather. These rights were challenged a century later, when William Jondreau, an Ojibwe man — and grandfather of Jerry Jondreau — was arrested for catching lake trout when it was out of season. Heclaimed, under treaty rights, that he was free to fish on Keweenaw Bay, where his people had fished for centuries. His case went before the Michigan Supreme Court and, in the 1971 landmark Jondreau decision, the court ruled that the 1854 treaty with the Chippewa superseded state fish and game laws.
The decision reaffirmed his people’s right to hunt and fish on ceded territories. But there has been a steady “devaluation” of treaty rights since, Jerry Jondreau argues. “In those agreements, we retained our rights to hunt, fish and gather,” he says. “In exchange, the U.S. got all the land. It’s accruing wealth. But the fish, the water … those things are becoming sick.”
On the Bad River Reservation, a flash of lightning lit up a dark cloud over the Kakagon River. Seconds later, a low rumble of thunder rolled through the wetlands. Edith Leoso watched from the back of the boat as it sped inland. The rice harvest would be plentiful this season, she said. But the smelt population is in decline — and has been for years. Even so, she said, “people are still smelting when they shouldn’t be. We should leave that fish alone.” They’re fishing out of necessity,she explained, regardless of consumption advisories: “We don’t recognize them if we have to feed our families. That’s the bottom line.”
Michiganalso lists consumption guidelines for fish in hundreds of smaller lakes and rivers. “Fishing is a primary source of subsistence for Ojibwe tribes throughout the basin,” says Valoree Gagnon, director of university-Indigenous community partnerships at the Great Lakes Research Center of Michigan Technological University. “So, when you’re asked to lower fish consumption, you’re not just losing meals, you’re losing all those practices associated with fishing: sharing knowledge and passing that to future generations. It changes all kinds of social dynamics.”
The lake tribes have been proactive in response to environmental threats to their water. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the Bad River Band the authority — known as “treatment as a state” — to set its own water-quality standards. A decade later, KBIC received the same authority.
Researchers are doing additional testing to identify possible sources of PFAS in Lake Superior. But contaminated sites already identified may hold clues. The chemicals have been found at the Duluth Air National Guard Base, adjacent to a PFAS-polluted creek that leads to Saint Louis Bay, at the southwestern corner of the lake in Minnesota; they were first detected at the Duluth air base in 2010, said Bioenvironmental Manager Maj. Ryan Blazevic of the 148th Fighter Wing in an email. The wing “no longer conducts fire protection training in a manner that discharges firefighting foam,” he said. (Firefighter training is a common source of PFAS at military bases.)”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has begun to draft rules to establish state PFAS standards for drinking water. Data, scientific evidence and community testimony around PFAS raises the alarm for strong and immediate action on proposed rules for drinking water and surface water standards. Our groundwater, Starkweather Creek, the Yahara chain of lakes and our fish in and around Madison are already contaminated with PFAS thousands of times the anticipated water standard.
WE ARE ASKING THAT YOU WRITE DNR STAFF AND SUPPORT THE ADOPTION OF NEW PFAS DRINKING WATER STANDARDS.
Background In order to establish standards for PFAS, the DNR will need to revise the NR 809 regulations, the Safe Drinking Water Standard. The DNR already held a public meeting on December 1st. Many state citizens commented during this virtual meeting. They said:
Six of twelve wells in Eau Claire were closed due to high levels of PFAS, chemicals used in many products including food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and aqueous film forming foam (AFFF). PFAS contamination in Madison is largely due to decades of fire-fighting training at Truax Field using foam containing PFAS.
An OB/GYN physician presented evidence that PFAS and PFOA, lipophilic substances, are not only found but concentrated in breast milk. She called it “alarming.” Other documented adverse health effects of PFAS in drinking water include decreased response of antibodies to vaccines, low birth weight, testicular cancer and thyroid cancer.
A resident of Marinette called for amending NR 809, “to prevent the slow poisoning of the people of Wisconsin from municipal water systems.”
The next step in the rulemaking timeline is the DNR Board meeting on January 25-26, 2022, where they will consider adoption of the rule.
“The Dane County Board on Thursday approved a proposal that will require additional public reporting on PFAS contamination and seek more information on much power the county has to regulate or halt airport projects if soil is too contaminated.
In another proposal aimed at supporting efforts to address PFAS contamination, the board backed a state bill that, if passed, would fund new state staff to come up with a PFAS action plan, create grants for local governments to conduct testing and remediation and other statewide initiatives to mitigate contamination due to the chemicals.
PFAS compounds are toxic, manmade chemicals that don’t break down in the environment and have been shown to increase the risk of cancer and other ailments. The “forever chemicals” have been found at the Dane County Regional Airport, where firefighters have used fluorinated foams for decades. Environmental advocates worry construction could further disburse PFAS.
Sup. Yogesh Chawla, 6th District, the author of the proposal on public reporting, said the county needs to make it “as easy as possible” for members of the community to find out about contamination levels and any remediation efforts. With the resolution’s approval, Public Health Madison and Dane County, along with county staff, will be directed to make a website for posting information on PFAS tests and minutes from any public meetings where PFAS is discussed.
The resolution also asks county staff to provide a legal opinion on “any and all ways” the county can regulate airport activities and the work to clean up PFAS. Chawla said it’s not clear exactly what the county can do to protect from PFAS contamination, and the legal opinion should shed some light on that.
“We … need to know what power the County Board has to keep our drinking water safe for our community,” Chawla said.
The resolution is the latest iteration of a series of proposals from Chawla looking to address PFAS contamination. The previous proposals failed, likely because they included language opposing the placement of F-35 fighter jets in Madison, which has faced opposition because of noise and environmental concerns. Thursday’s resolution doesn’t mention the jets at all.
Sup. Jeff Weigand, 20th District, was the only board member to vote against the PFAS resolutions. Weigand said he supported the public reporting but was against efforts to regulate airport activity. He said the proposal supporting the state bill “does nothing,” and he’s against passing a measure just “so we can all feel good.”
Also Thursday, the board passed a resolution that directs staff in the county’s Department of Human Services to prepare a report on potential sites for lawful car camping for homeless individuals. Weigand was the only board member to vote against it, but he did not say why.
More than nine years ago, local nonprofit Madison-area Urban Ministry, now known as Just Dane, recommended that the county identify parking spots on properties owned by the county, businesses and faith communities that could be used for car camping. Just Dane also recommended creating a registration process and a community outreach program to explain the car camping to neighbors.
The new report will include ways the county could implement those recommendations and take “a fresh look” at car camping, Human Services Director Shawn Tessmann said. Staff are required to present interim recommendations no later than March 1 and a full report on the site options by June 1.
Sup. Heidi Wegleitner, 2nd District, the author of the resolution, has said implementing lawful car camping in the county is “overdue.”
“Despite testing that found “forever chemicals” at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport two years ago, the Department of Defense has yet to move forward with a plan to address the contamination, putting nearby residents with private drinking wells at risk.
The Department of Defense was notified by the state Department of Natural Resources that it was the responsible party for contamination from PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — in ground and surface water near the airport in 2019, but no action has yet been taken, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group.
The environmental advocacy group looked at publicly available data related to PFAS testing at DOD sites across the Great Lakes region and found that several sites, including Mitchell Airport, could be contaminating not only groundwater but the lakes that give the area its name.
Some of the highest levels of the chemicals were found in private drinking wells along the borders of the Milwaukee airport, said Jared Hayes, a policy analyst with the Environmental Working Group. And because no aggressive action has been taken since the discovery of the compounds, some residents in the area may not even know they’re at risk.
The department ordered that the airport needed to determine the source of the contamination, prevent future discharges and develop a cleanup plan. At the time, levels were not high enough to be considered a public health concern, but the department wanted the water utility to monitor levels.
Included in the testing results in 2019 were about six compounds, including PFOA and PFOS, two of the most researched PFAS chemicals.
Though recommendations at the time called for wastewater utilities to start measuring for PFAS, no such rules have yet been instituted, because the utilities are not the source of chemicals but merely a receiver as the chemicals are washed down drains across the state.
Milwaukee isn’t the only city to face a PFAS contamination stemming from its airport. In Madison, contamination stemming from the Dane County Regional Airport — where the 115th Fighter Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard is stationed — has been linked to high levels of PFAS in a nearby lake and some nearby wells.
On French Island, which is home to the La Crosse Regional Airport on one side and the Town of Campbell on the other, over a thousand people are receiving bottled water after PFAS were found in private drinking water across the island. Research into the airport’s past has shown that ongoing testing of PFAS-containing firefighting foam and foam used to put out blazes caused by plane crashes are likely responsible for most of the contamination.
PFAS are a family of man-made chemicals used for their water- and stain-resistant qualities in products like clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam. The family includes 5,000 compounds, which are persistent, remaining both in the environment and the human body over time.