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Mich. industrial fire rages for 2 weeks, raises PFAS concerns

Fire crews from around Michigan and Wisconsin continue their aggressive attack as environmental officials monitor the area’s drinking water


Photo/Appleton Fire Department

By Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

DETROIT — A fire has been raging at an Upper Peninsula industrial complex for two weeks despite the “aggressive attack” firefighters across the region launched against the flames, Menominee Fire Chief Mark Petersen said Thursday.

As fire crews from around Michigan and Wisconsin continue fighting the blaze, environmental officials are monitoring PFAS compounds in the area’s drinking water, which have risen since the fire started Oct. 6 although state environmental officials say they remain within safe limits.

The fire started on Oct. 6 at a paper plant and warehouse in Menominee, a small city on Michigan’s border with Wisconsin. The warehouse was filled with bales of scrap paper and pulp towering more than 10 feet high.

As the flames swept through the building, firefighters lost visibility, Peterson said. They were ordered out of the building to fight the fire and transition their focus to protecting portions of the industrial complex.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Peterson said.

Fire crews have been working 12-hour days for two weeks and continue fighting the flames. Peterson said he expects the fire to be extinguished Saturday.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Menominee County on Oct. 13.

It’s unclear what started the warehouse fire.

The damage has been extensive — 420,000 square feet of the 560,000 square-foot building has been destroyed, including the portion of the facility that housed Resolute Forest Products, a pulp and paper manufacturer headquartered in Montreal, Canada and employs roughly 100 people in Menominee, said Cynthia Kuber, president of KK Integrated Logistics, which owns the industrial site.

KK Integrated Logistics plans to rebuild the facility but does not know what it will cost, Kuber said.


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The Environmental Protection Agency, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are sampling surface water at 21 locations near the site as well as the Menominee and Marinette water treatment plants and the Menominee River. The facility is adjacent to the river and the state border.

Levels of PFAS compounds in nearby drinking water have risen since the fire started, state and federal environmental regulators found, and some compounds have been detected for the first time.

None of the compounds are above state-determined maximum safe levels, which means the state had deemed the drinking water safe for normal use, said Mike Bolf, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy drinking water engineering manager. He noted that PFAS findings peaked early after the fire started and are trending down.

But at least one PFAS compound, PFOA, was temporarily in excess of the interim advisory limits the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued this summer, which are more conservative than the limits set by states. PFOA levels were two parts per trillion in Marinette’s drinking water on Oct. 10, EGLE found. The EPA’s safety advisory says the acceptable limit is .004 parts per trillion for a lifetime of exposure in drinking water.

For many PFAS chemicals, the EPA interim safety advisories set a drinking water limit of almost zero for lifetime exposure.

PFAS are a set of manmade chemicals that do not occur naturally in the environment and do not degrade in the environment. They are known as “forever chemicals” and have been used widely in consumer goods and industrial products. PFAS exposure is associated with health concerns including increased cholesterol, increased cancer risk, increased risk of birth complications and more.

Firefighting water that entered the Menominee River during the early days of the blaze may have been contaminated with industrial chemicals and PFAS that were stored at the facility, the EPA said on Oct. 14.

Responding fire departments are using foams that do not contain PFAS to fight the fire, the EPA said.

Contractors overseen by the EPA and EGLE have started building a water treatment system for the “several million gallons of fire suppression water” that were collected from the site. Runoff has been collected in containment ponds that can hold millions of gallons of water, Kuber said.

EGLE intends to continue monitoring PFAS levels in Marinette’s drinking water and coordinating with state health officials, Bolf said. He said the city’s water treatment system cannot remove PFAS compounds.


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