Clean water advocates ‘cautiously optimistic’ about PFAS legislation

Advocates for clean water in Wisconsin say that legislation and a potential $125 million budget appropriation to address pollution from harmful “forever chemicals” around the state would be a good “first step” toward better protecting the state’s water supply. 

The group of chemicals known as PFAS has been connected to cancer and other long term health defects. The compounds can enter the environment through household goods such as nonstick pans, fast food wrappers and certain types of firefighting foam. Communities across the state, as large as Madison and Wausau and as small as the town of Stella, with a population less than 600, have found PFAS in their water supplies. 

For years, voters and environmentalists have pushed for stronger action to help clean up PFAS pollution across the state, which has come in fits and starts. Last year, Republicans on the state’s Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), set standards for the amount of certain types of the chemicals that are allowable in the state’s surface and drinking water, yet failed to set a standard for groundwater — which, through private drinking wells, is how millions of Wisconsinites get their water. 

Meanwhile, a lawsuit from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby and a major supporter of the state Republican party, is fighting in court to gut Wisconsin’s “spills law,” which allows the DNR to force polluters to clean up the effects of pollution. If the WMC lawsuit, currently at the appeal level, is successful, the DNR would be prevented from holding people responsible for the cleanup of PFAS pollution. 

And in 2020, legislative Republicans stripped a number of provisions out of a rule that would allow the DNR to regulate the firefighting foam that has been designated as the source of much of the state’s PFAS pollution. 

Despite that history, legislation from Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) and a separate appropriation of $125 million by Republicans on the budget writing Joint Finance Committee has the state’s clean water advocates looking forward and hopeful that some progress on cleanup can be made in earnest. 

“At a high level, we’re certainly happy to see that the Legislature is making this effort to address PFAS contamination in the state,” Sara Walling, the water and agriculture program director for Clean Wisconsin, says. “Secondly, seeing such a nice amount of financial support that came through JFC last week, it’s also a positive signal for us. But the Legislature and the state are trying to take this really widespread water contamination issue seriously and so seeing that kind of legislative action, I think is certainly positive steps.” 

Neither the legislation, SB 312, nor the budget appropriation includes direction for how the money will be disbursed among the various programs created under the bill, yet Rob Lee, a staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, says the funding will serve as a “down payment” for addressing PFAS in Wisconsin. 

“I think we are encouraged by that level of funding. But that’s not the only piece of this and there does need to be that legislation to put it into action,” he says. So about the funding specifically, I will say that’s still just a downpayment. That certainly will not solve all of the issues that we’re facing with PFAS across the board. But it certainly, if properly implemented, could be a really good start to solving a lot of these issues. Beyond the assistance that this funding would provide, there’s still so much more to do. I mean, at some point, we need to be having a conversation about phase out and prevention so that these situations don’t persist indefinitely.” 

SB 312 establishes a number of grant programs that would allow the DNR to start taking action toward remediating PFAS pollution in the variety of ways it shows up across the state. A municipal grant program would allow local governments to be reimbursed for the costs associated with testing for PFAS, disposing of PFAS cleaned out of water supplies and upgrading treatment facilities.

Another program would allow for grants up to $250,000 for environmental cleanup at sites in which the owner is not responsible for the pollution and others would help private well owners recoup the costs of additional filters or replacement of a PFAS contaminated well. 

The bill also includes provisions for the University of Wisconsin System to work toward finding cheaper ways to test for and treat PFAS pollution. 

Lee and Walling say the variety of programs the bill addresses is a good way to start attacking the PFAS problem on multiple fronts, but that also means the $125 million could be spent rather quickly. 

“When you think about this issue being dynamic and not just impacting one specific class of entities, that’s not just municipalities, but individual property owners, farmers, the municipalities, of course, but you know, industrial facilities and all of those, there’s just a myriad of issues that need to be addressed,” Lee says. “And so, I don’t think that this funding may solve any of those issues outright. But they’re also interconnected and that we do need some sort of more comprehensive approach. So I think I’m okay with that because it’s sort of recognized that we’re going to have to come back to the well here later on, and probably draw a little bit more funding but what spreading that money around can do is also increase the amount of information we have so that we can later make better, more informed decisions about where to allocate additional funding.” 

Even with the early optimism, both Lee and Walling say they have questions about some of the legislative language, worries about the bill’s provisions which limit DNR authority and hopes that the legislative committee process can improve the bill. 

“There’s a number of places where limitations are placed on DNR authority to do testing or undergo cleanup efforts,” Walling says. “And so we’re working to try to understand, from DNR’s perspective, the ways that might interfere with their ability to address contaminated site cleanup at brownfields in particular. I hope that we’ll be able to better understand how those parameters will help us deal with this issue. And the tweaks that might need to be made to ensure the programs that they’re establishing here can be as effective as possible and not generate unintended consequences for DNR’s ability to deal with contamination sites across the state over the next several years.” 

Additionally, Lee says limitations on DNR authority for cleaning spills should be considered very lightly, because the state’s spills law should not be traded for that amount of money. 

“If the spills law, as originally designed, is ultimately vindicated in the appellate courts — because DNR’s authority is currently being litigated under it — that law is priceless,” Lee says. “And we have to be very careful when talking about amending it. To make sure that we don’t create a situation where on balance, sure we’re putting $125 million in, but in the long run, it’s actually a net loss.” 

Lee and Walling say their organizations are waiting until the bill is in its final form to register official positions on its passage. A staff member for Wimberger said he was unavailable for an interview about the bill. 

Committee hearings on the bill have not yet been scheduled.

originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F05%2F31%2Fclean-water-advocates-cautiously-optimistic-about-pfas-legislation%2F by Henry Redman

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