Lawmakers looking to address PFAS pollution

By: - February 1, 2023 7:00 am

A PFAS advisory sign along Starkweather Creek. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

A Republican-led committee appeared open to dedicating more resources this budget cycle towards addressing PFAS contamination in Wisconsin during a hearing on Tuesday. 

The informational hearing about PFAS —  or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — comes about a month after University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers determined there were PFAS in Green Bay and a week after Gov. Tony Evers announced he will include $100 million towards PFAS research and mitigation efforts in his upcoming budget proposal.

Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) said the purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was to educate lawmakers about the status of PFAS in Wisconsin, providing a baseline understanding as they work towards exploring and funding potential solutions.

“We’ve learned more and more and more and finding out that it’s out in the bay, that’s going to wake up a lot of people,” Cowles told reporters. “There’s a lot of fishermen that aren’t too thrilled right now.” 

PFAS are a family of synthetic chemicals that are found in everyday products such as nonstick cookware and firefighting foam. The so-called “forever chemicals” don’t break down easily in nature and are linked to illnesses including cancer, thyroid disorders and birth defects in humans and other animal species.

“I hope, certainly, they will prioritize these issues.” Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Somers) said during the hearing.

The GOP-led Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee heard testimony from a variety of stakeholders including a UW-Madison researcher, a Department of Natural Resources official, representatives from one business responsible for collecting PFAS throughout Wisconsin and municipal representatives.

Christy Remucal, a lead researcher on the UW-Madison study, told lawmakers that there are many challenges when it comes to removing PFAS from the environment once they’re there and a better strategy would be to prevent them from entering the environment to begin with. She said there is a process for filtering chemicals from water, however once the chemicals are on a filter it is difficult to dispose of them.

“What to do when these chemicals are in the lake? I mean the genie is out of the bottle, I would say, at that point. What we really need to do is prevent them from getting into the environment in the first place,” Remucal said. 

One of the biggest sources of PFAS pollution, Remucal said, is firefighting foam. 

While Wisconsin lawmakers have been slow to pass PFAS-related legislation, one state law passed during the most recent budget cycle prohibits PFAS-containing firefighting foam except during emergency firefighting operations or during testing at a facility with measures in place to prevent discharge of the foam to the environment and sewer. 

The DNR has been working to remove PFAS-containing firefighting foams across the state. 

David Johnson, executive vice president of North Shore Environmental Construction, told the committee about the company’s work collecting firefighting foam for the DNR over the last six months. Johnson said some fire departments like Madison have switched over to PFAS-free foam, while others are a bit more resistant due to the cost of replacing the foam. 

The expensive nature of addressing PFAS contamination was a common theme throughout the hearing, especially from municipal groups who focused on what some cities are spending and what other cities can’t afford to spend. 

Toni Herkert with the League of Municipalities discussed plans in Eau Claire to construct a PFAS removal facility which will cost around $24 million and a water treatment facility in Wausau that will cost between $15 and $20 million. 

According to Vanessa Wishart, a representative from the Municipal Environmental Group, pollution minimization plans could cost tens of thousands dollars and treatment could cost millions of dollars.

Chris Groh, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Water Association emphasized the need to look at costs when it comes to setting policies related to PFAS mitigation. He said small, rural communities won’t be able to afford strategies like replacing contaminated wells or new filtration systems. 

Jim Zellmer, an administrator at the DNR, said the agency is being careful about picking sites that it tests at in order to work within the current budget.

“Do we have enough?” Zellmer said. “We’ll make it stretch, and we will do what we can in the interim, but you know, obviously not to the extent that we would like to.” 

Evers’ proposal includes a grant program to support local governments in testing and investigating PFAS, providing alternative water and the long-term removal of PFAS from water supplies and would look to fund additional DNR staff dedicated specifically to PFAS. 

Cowles, who chairs the committee, expressed initial support for the Evers’ plan.  

“The governor’s plan, without knowing all the fine points, I think we’ve got a pretty good chance of making it happen whether it’s a separate bill, or in the budget,” Cowles said.

He said Wisconsin communities want clean water, and it’s a matter of whether the resources are provided. 

“There’s fear,” Cowles said. “Those people, they’ve got kids. They don’t want to have bad water, and there’s pressure on those mayors and those city councils and those water authorities to have decent water, so are we going to provide the resources here to settle them down and hopefully have better water? And that’s what people want.”


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.