Firefighters use a foam product to suppress a blaze. Photo from National PFAS Contamination Coalition, licensed under Creative Commons
Republicans on a powerful legislative committee won’t object to rules proposed by the Natural Resources Board (NRB) to regulate pollution from a group of chemicals known as PFAS in Wisconsin’s drinking water.
A spokesperson for Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) said that the Republicans on the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) will not be objecting to the standards proposed by the NRB earlier this year. Now those standards will move to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for implementation.
The issue of PFAS regulation has been controversial in recent years, with Republicans passing laws to regulate pollution but rejecting rules to fill out the details of those laws. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has been pushing for the regulation of the chemicals since he took office, but Republicans have argued there isn’t enough information about the chemicals to begin regulating them and that the state should wait for federal rules on the issue. JCRAR could still object to how the DNR implements the rules.
PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a group of man-made chemicals commonly used in non-stick cooking pans and firefighting foam. The substances are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment or the body. PFAS are connected to certain kinds of cancer and other harmful effects.
The rules guide how local municipalities can track the presence of two compounds under the PFAS umbrella, PFOA and PFOS, through monitoring and testing. If the chemicals are present at high enough levels, governments or businesses would be required to take certain actions to return drinking water to compliance, including drilling new wells or installing new water treatment equipment.
The action limit for both compounds in drinking water will be set at 70 parts per trillion. In the state’s surface water the action limit for PFOS will be set at eight parts per trillion in all waters except those that cannot naturally support fish or do not have downstream waters that support fish. For PFOA, the action limit will be 20 parts per trillion for public water supplies and 95 parts per trillion in other surface water.
At a meeting in February, the NRB was unable to come to a consensus on rules for regulating the compounds in groundwater, which is the source of drinking water for more than 1 million Wisconsinites through private wells.
PFAS have affected dozens of communities across Wisconsin, leaving drinking water unusable in communities such as French Island near La Crosse. The state Department of Justice has filed lawsuits against a number of companies, alleging the firefighting foam they manufacture is responsible for contamination of the water in the Marinette area.
The state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), has been fighting a lawsuit over the regulation of PFAS in the state. The WMC lawsuit is over the state’s decades-old spills law, which allows the DNR to require companies that contaminate the state’s water to contribute to the cleanup.
WMC has alleged that the DNR hasn’t created rules that would allow PFAS to be regulated under the spills law. Earlier this year, a Waukesha County judge agreed with WMC, ending the DNR’s regulation of the chemicals through the law but last week the judge issued a stay of his decision while it goes through the appeals process.
That lawsuit isn’t directly affected by the new rules, though they do ensure the DNR has some way of regulating the harmful chemicals.
After Republicans on JCRAR decided not to object to the rules, environmental activists in Wisconsin celebrated their pending implementation.
“The finalization of these water quality protections is a positive development and a necessary step to protect Wisconsinites from forever chemicals,” Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, told the Associated Press. “While we are glad to see these rules move forward, we are mindful that Wisconsinites whose water comes from private wells also deserve the same protections under our state’s groundwater law.”
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