State of Wisconsin is suing Johnson Controls, Tyco over PFAS contamination in Marinette

Suit seeks monetary damages, requires investigation and cleanup of chemical contamination

A yard sign says "Stop poisoning our water."
A sign in Kayla Furton’s yard Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Peshtigo, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office is suing Johnson Controls and Tyco Fire Products for allegedly violating the state’s hazardous spills law by discharging PFAS chemicals into the area around its Marinette Fire Training Facility.

Tyco conducted testing and training with firefighting foam that contains PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, at its 380-acre facility from the early 1960s through 2017.

“It’s critical that there be a full investigation into PFAS contamination in the Marinette area,” Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said at a press conference Monday announcing the lawsuit. “And then, that where PFAS is found, that it is fully remediated.”

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In January 2021, residents in the Town of Peshtigo, near Marinette, won a settlement from Tyco after being exposed to the chemicals, which have contaminated private wells. In all, about 270 households were awarded $17.5 million.

The attorney general’s lawsuit, which also seeks a financial penalty from Johnson Controls and Tyco, alleges the companies didn’t provide timely notice of the contamination after its own sampling from 2013 to 2016 revealed PFAS in the surrounding area. The complaint also seeks to require the companies to complete an investigation and cleanup of the chemicals around the Marinette facility.

“That’s important both so that we can recover funds from the state — investigating these matters is expensive — but we also need those penalties to deter future pollution,” Kaul said. “I’m hopeful that others who are polluting and are violating the laws see this, and they realize the Wisconsin Department of Justice is very serious about seeing that our laws are enforced.”

In an emailed statement, Tyco highlighted steps it said it has taken to address the impacts of PFAS in Marinette and the surrounding communities.

“Although Tyco does not comment on pending litigation, we stand behind the years of work and considerable resources we have invested in investigating and remediating PFAS related to historic operations at our Fire Technology Center (FTC) in Marinette,” the statement said. “We continue to build on the progress we have made to address these issues in our community.”

Tyco said it offers bottled water and in-home filtration systems to Peshtigo households, and has nearly finished construction on a groundwater extraction and treatment center that it claims will treat 95 percent of the PFAS in the area when it opens by this summer. State environmental regulators have warned the system will reduce, but not eliminate, the so-called forever chemicals in groundwater and surface water over the next 30 years.

Tyco said it is also completing the removal of soils with aggregated PFAS from the fire technology center in the coming months.

Tyco has so far declined to conduct further sampling in an expanded area around its fire training facility in Marinette, claiming data doesn’t indicate PFAS detections are related to the company’s facility.

The chemicals have affected every aspect of life in Peshtigo as residents continue to rely on bottled water. Town chair Cindy Boyle said she was “elated” to hear about the state’s lawsuit.

“It validates everything that we and our community have been saying for such a long time, and it is more than just a little encouraging to know that responsible parties are being held to account for their bad conduct and failure to be honest brokers,” she said. “All anyone’s asking is to be restored safe drinking water — it shouldn’t be too much to ask.”

Boyle said she hopes the lawsuit will bring more scrutiny to PFAS contamination and the companies responsible, even beyond the area around the Marinette facility.

“Unless you know where you’re being exposed to danger, you can’t do anything to protect your family against it,” she said. “Knowledge is power, and it’s really time that this stay in the public consciousness so that people can make sure they are drinking safe water.”

As awareness has grown, state regulators have identified 96 sites statewide that are contaminated with PFAS. Those include industrial areas and waterways in Superior, Madison, Milwaukee and La Crosse.

The state Department of Natural Resources referred Johnson Controls and Tyco to the DOJ in 2019 for failing to report any release of PFAS when they were first discovered in 2013. Company officials have said they believed contamination had been confined to the site of its facility. In December 2020, the DOJ notified Tyco and Johnson Controls it may pursue civil enforcement action against them.

Tyco has refused demands from the DNR to test 500 wells for PFAS contamination beyond its fire training facility after state regulators said the company failed to complete work as part of an ongoing investigation. The DNR hired an engineering firm to conduct testing of 415 more wells, the majority of which show PFAS levels below the state’s recommended standard.

The DNR also said last fall the companies failed to fully investigate PFAS pollution near fields that had received biosolids, or treated sewage sludge, from the city of Marinette’s wastewater treatment plant.

Tyco previously discharged firefighting foam that contained PFAS to the city’s sewer system, and data from 2017 and 2018 showed the sewage sludge contained significant levels of PFAS.