Menominee Paper Mill Fire

A fire at a Michigan paper mill that jumped to a nearby warehouse caused a release of toxic “forever chemicals” into the Menominee River last week, likely impacting the drinking water for residents in Marinette.

The fire started at a 70-acre warehouse space belonging to Resolute Forest Products on Oct. 6, and eventually jumped over to a warehouse leased by Johnson Controls for storage. The fire burned for several days, and could be extinguished fully by Saturday, according to officials. The plant is idled and is not expected to be able to resume production this month as large parts of the mill were completely destroyed and will have to be rebuilt.

The fire was reported in warehouse space that Resolute leases from KK Integrated Logistics, according to a statement from David Marshall, director of sustainability and public affairs at Resolute Forest Products. The company stores recyclable bales of paper in that warehouse. Those bales are manufactured into recycled bleach kraft pulp.

Menominee is across the Menominee River and the Michigan-Wisconsin border from Marinette, about an hour’s drive north of Green Bay.

Wisconsin, Michigan and federal agencies are working to begin the process of cleaning up after the blaze, as well as ensuring the safety of human health in the area through water and air sampling. Water used to quench the blaze has been captured and pumped into a newly created retention pond or other containers that will later be removed from the site. Air is also being monitored at the site.

Most of the concern surrounding water contamination has stemmed from a second structure that caught fire during the blaze, a warehouse rented by Tyco Fire Products for storage.

The products in the warehouse facility included a mix of finished products ready for use to extinguish fires that can occur in kitchens, computer data centers, mine vehicle systems, and oil and gas facilities, said Karen Marie Tognarelli, a spokesperson for Tyco.

“The products in the warehouse facility included a mix of finished products ready for customer use along with spare parts and equipment needed by customers to maintain existing fire protection equipment,” she said in an email.

Tyco is known to use PFAS in some of its firefighting foam.

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PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, 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 human body over time.

The chemicals have been linked to types of kidney and testicular cancers, lower birth weights, harm to immune and reproductive systems, altered hormone regulation and altered thyroid hormones. The chemicals enter the human body largely through drinking water.

Tyco, a subsidiary of Johnson Controls, tested firefighting foam containing PFAS outdoors from 1962 until ending the practice in 2017. The foam ended up on the soil surrounding the company’s fire training center, as well as in the Marinette sewer system when the foam was washed into drains.

Debris from the warehouse fire that occurred Oct. 6 in Menominee, Michigan.

With that history, residents are concerned about the release of PFAS into the river and the bay of Green Bay. Marinette pulls its drinking water from the bay, with an intake pipe located near the mouth of the Menominee River, making it likely that PFAS could easily enter the drinking water system.

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Doug Oitzinger, a Marinette city council member and former mayor, said he’s highly concerned and has been using a pitcher to filter his water. He also said it highlights the need for rules regulating the storage and protection of substances containing PFAS, so if there is an emergency, communities aren’t put at risk.

“Given the fact that this was next to a river and there were no containment barriers that we know of, it raises all kinds of issues,” he said.

Officials from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Department of Health Services said at a Thursday afternoon news conference that the situation is being closely monitored, especially the drinking water.

Kyle Burton, field operations director of drinking water and groundwater for the DNR, said there was a spike in some PFAS compounds after the fire started, and that Marinette is sampling its water daily to ensure that no levels go above any state or health standards.

“We’re trending down now, very close to historical levels,” Burton said of the most recent test results.

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Oitzinger said he’s most worried about PFOA and PFOS — two of the most well-known and researched in the PFAS family — because this summer, the Environmental Protection Agency said that essentially no level of those two compounds are safe for humans to consume.

Marinette does routine sampling already of its drinking water and has found low levels of those two compounds in the past, but if there was any sort of increase in the concentrations, that would be very concerning, Oitzinger said.

“If they doubled or tripled because of this incident, that would be extremely disturbing news,” he said.

Laura Schulte can be reached at and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.