DNR Secretary talks clean water, climate change and agriculture at Marquette event

By: - June 16, 2022 6:00 am

EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore and DNR Secretary Preston Cole discuss environmental issues at a June 15 event. (Screenshot | WisEye)

Pollution from hazardous chemicals, the long-term effects of climate change and the evolving nature of agriculture all play a role in the health of Wisconsin’s residents and its economy, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole said at an event hosted by the Marquette University Law School on Wednesday.

The event focused on environmental law featured Cole and Debra Shore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional administrator for Region 5, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. 

The discussion started with the regulation of PFAS in Wisconsin’s water supply. PFAS are a group of man-made compounds known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment or the body. Cole said on Wednesday the DNR is currently investigating 97 sites across the state for PFAS contamination, which can cause cancer and other harmful effects. 

Wisconsin and the country have had a number of recent developments regarding PFAS regulation in drinking water. Earlier this week, a legislative committee said it would allow the DNR to implement rules guiding the limit of certain types of PFAS in public water sources before action can be taken and last week a Waukesha County judge issued a stay in his previous decision that would severely limit the DNR’s authority when a company contaminates public water. 

On Wednesday morning, the EPA issued a new health advisory for PFAS, dramatically lowering the level of PFAS in drinking water that is considered safe. The level of one compound, PFOS, that is considered safe was lowered by a factor of 3,500 and the safe level of another, PFOA, was lowered by 17,000. 

At the event on Wednesday, Cole said he’s concerned about what PFAS contamination will do to the health of Wisconsinites and local economies that rely on outdoor recreation. 

“We know that these chemicals harm us, as people,” he said. “These chemicals lay in our fatty cells and do damage to us. And so the seriousness of it all is paramount,” he said.  

“We know that our economy in Wisconsin is tied to clean water,” Cole added. “We have an $18 billion outdoor recreation economy in jeopardy. So whether you fish or hunt or get out on our lakes … in Marinette, Peshtigo, La Crosse. All of these economies, this summer, are hoping that people show up in their cities, towns and villages so that they can get on the water and drink the water and fish and enjoy all that Wisconsin has to offer. I worry about our outdoor natural resources, that nature-based economy and the communities that are encumbered by PFAS in their drinking water.” 

He added people will choose to move away rather than continuing to live in Wisconsin towns affected by PFAS contamination.

Cole also addressed the negative effects climate change will have on Wisconsin’s economy, particularly for marginalized groups such as people of color in Milwaukee and the state’s Native American tribes.  

“We have to pay attention to climate and my responsibility and my team’s responsibility is to work with researchers, our own researchers, but those outside the organization to advise us accordingly,” he said. “We know Wisconsin is getting wetter. We know Wisconsin is less cold today … We know that 15 years ago if you had a pier on Lake Michigan, you couldn’t even see the water. Now that water is lapping up on your doorstep, in the back of your house. So these huge swings are pivotal and we have to pay attention to what it’s showing us. … We know what’s coming out of the top of stacks, in carbon, is impacting not only our environment, certainly, but our ecosystem and consequently, our economy.” 

Cole said that the department is creating an environmental justice policy position to make sure that for any decision made about a project or development in the state, the potential environmental effects for marginalized communities are being considered. 

“In the state of Wisconsin, Black and Brown folks and our tribal brothers and sisters and partners are often at the epicenter of environmental degradation,” he said. “It could be a development, it could be a manufacturing center, it could be a roadway, whatever that is, we have to be eyes-on so that we can protect those who are most often put upon.” 

Cole praised Gov. Tony Evers for paying particular attention to the needs of marginalized communities.

Cole and Shore also discussed the agricultural industry and the importance of working with farmers to make sure their practices aren’t having harmful downstream effects on the local environment. 

Shore pointed to the Maumee River watershed in Ohio and the agricultural runoff that has caused massive algal blooms in Lake Erie near Toledo, making the water undrinkable. She said it’s important for the industry to recognize its responsibility for these problems and work together with environmental agencies to find a solution. 

“We have a shared obligation no matter what our religion, class, race, no matter what athletic team we pledge allegiance to, to care for that common home,” Shore said. “And I think that we have seen in a number of arenas water use, but also now in modern agriculture where we externalized to the environment the costs of production. And there needs to be a reckoning about that responsibility and that cost to the environment.” 

“But it’s a challenge and it’s a social challenge,” she continued. “It’s also an element of political will.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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