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Lake Tomahawk approached about PFAS

Fire department one of several in the area using foam with the contaminant

January 21, 2020 by Brian Jopek

Recent issues the city of Rhinelander has had regarding perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFAS) was the basis for a question posed to the Lake Tomahawk Town Board on Jan. 8. 

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Lake Tomahawk resident Gary Sowatzka said he’d like to see something on an upcoming meeting agenda concerning PFAS. 

“I was on the fire department for 14 years,” he said. “We did train in using the foam. It did go into the ground over there. You wouldn’t think of the severity of that until you looked at what happened in Rhinelander.”

Sowatzka said there needed to be a look at the department’s training records to see how often foam containing PFAS was used. 

He also suggested having the water in wells at the fire department as well as the Raymond F. Sloan Community Center tested for PFAS contamination. 

“Then at that point, you’d know if you had anything else,” Sowatzka said. 

Town chairman George DeMet didn’t disagree.

“I think that’s a good idea,” he said. 

“Well, it’s a health issue with the severity that they have over there (in Rhinelander),” Sowatzka said. 

“Well, the airport ...” DeMet began. 

“That went a long way,” Sowatzka said. 

‘Flourine’s the problem’

Lake Tomahawk fire chief Doug Rehm, who at some point will more than likely attend a town board meeting in the near future to discuss the matter, on Jan. 9 said foam is used by the department primarily for vehicle fires. 

“We also will use it on stubborn structure fires, but not extensively,” he said. “Maybe not for initial knockdown of a fire, but to control it. It lets the water penetrate a fire.”

Rehm said nearly all fire departments in the area, to his knowledge, have the capability to use foam in firefighting, some of them using it “almost automatically” at a fire scene.

When asked about how often the Lake Tomahawk Fire Department uses foam, he said infrequently. 

Some states, such as the state of Washington, have banned the use of foam containing PFAS, their fire departments instead opting for non-flourine foam.

“What I already have in the back of my mind is when we go to restock, we will go with the non-flourine stuff,” Rehm said. “If we can get it. The flourine’s the problem. What’s gonna happen is all the stuff with the flourine’s gonna get phased out and that’ll come in at a national level.”

He said the biggest problem is the military.

“Because of the amount of training they do with it,” Rehm said. “When we train, we try not to use real foam.”

He said dish soap is mixed with water. 

“Because it’ll give the same effect, but it’s not going to work on a fire, obviously,” Rehm said.

He said he’s been following the topic and attended a meeting of area fire chiefs the night before where firefighting foam containing PFAS was briefly discussed. 

“I’m assuming Rhinelander will be switching to it (non-flourine foam) when they can get it,” Rehm said. “Right now, there’s no distributors that handle it.”

In the meantime, he said there are no plans for the Lake Tomahawk to stop using foam.

“But, if a better product that doesn’t have the contamination problems is available, we’d be more than interested in it if it’s affordable,” Rehm said. 

Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected].

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