Haggling begins over Republican PFAS bill

By: - June 6, 2023 6:00 am
Starkweather Creek empties into Lake Monona at Olbrich Park in Madison. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Starkweather Creek, which empties into Madison's Lake Monona, is contaminated with PFAs. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

State agencies, legislators, advocacy groups and lobbyists spent more than three hours in a public hearing on Monday requesting amendments to draft legislation that would create a number of programs aiming at mitigating and treating PFAS pollution across Wisconsin. 

The bill, SB 312, authored by Sens. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) and Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), includes the creation of a number of grant programs aimed at assisting municipal treatment systems, private well owners and landowners with addressing pollution from the family of chemical compounds known as PFAS, which are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down easily in the environment. The bill also institutes a number of limits on the authority of the Department of Natural Resources over when and how it can force testing and remediation for PFAS. 

For decades, PFAS have been used in a variety of products, including certain kinds of firefighting foam, fast food wrappers and household goods such as nonstick pans. PFAS contamination has been found to cause long-term health problems, including cancer. 

PFAS pollution has been found in water supplies across the state in municipal systems as large as Madison and Wausau and in the private wells of the residents of tiny communities such as the town of Campbell on French Island outside of La Crosse and the town of Stella east of Rhinelander. Cowles, the chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said at the hearing that this will not be the Legislature’s last action on the chemicals and that the bill is still being shaped. 

“We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us today to make serious progress against PFAS and related substances,” Cowles said. “But first, we must establish the necessary programs and policies to ensure that we’re prepared for what’s to come. We’ve already had many conversations spreading across dozens of hours relating to this legislation since it was unveiled weeks back. We’ve heard some very constructive, good constructive feedback, which can help to ensure this legislation is better and easier to implement. But we’ve also heard that this bill is already a pretty good balancing of all interests involved, from the rural farm owner to the municipal utility director to the landowner with contamination at no fault of their own. I believe this bill can help a lot of these people. So while this bill is not a first step by any means it is also likely not the final step.”

Interest groups, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business lobby, and environmental organizations such as Clean Wisconsin, have remained neutral on the bill so far. 

“I think it’s incredibly important to point out that there isn’t one organization registered opposing this bill,” Rep. Jeff Mursau (R-Crivitz), the author of the Assembly version of the bill, said. “All the leading environmental groups and business stakeholders are registered as neutral. I think that’s a positive step forward.” 

Yet while that step forward is a sign of optimism for the lawmakers, on Monday, those groups were pushing for the bill to be changed in often opposing ways. 

The DNR and a number of environmental groups raised concerns about ways in which the legislation limits the agency’s authority. 

“Limiting the department’s statutory authority in ways suggested by this bill will not help Wisconsin address the problem adequately,” said Sara Walling, Clean Wisconsin’s water and agriculture program director. “PFAS pollution is a serious problem that requires bold action from our state policymakers and Clean Wisconsin appreciates the recent legislative efforts to strive for bold action and a bold plan. However, we are concerned that the bill’s provisions may result in unintended consequences that will make it harder to address the totality of the problem. Again, we urge the authors to consider striving for bold action by drafting amendments allowing the department to use the full extent of its existing statutory authority.” 

Jim Zellmer, the deputy administrator of DNR’s environmental management division, listed a number of amendments the agency would like to see to the bill’s text — from a recommendation that a program created under the bill be combined with already existing money in other water-related grant programs to requests for more staff to account for the added work and concerns about how the bill will interact with existing state and federal laws and regulations. 

Lawmakers said a meeting was planned between DNR staff and legislators for Tuesday, and Wimberger said that the recommended changes were “on the most part, reasonable.” 

But WMC, which is currently involved in two lawsuits against the DNR over its ability to force the cleanup of PFAS pollution through the state’s toxic spills law, was advocating for keeping a tight leash on the DNR’s regulatory authority to force property or business owners to test for PFAS. 

WMC lobbyist Scott Manley said DNR proposals would “water down your bill in a way that you can drive a truck through, and essentially would give them, if you accepted the recommendation that they’re asking for, would give them carte blanche to just require testing even when there’s no reasonable belief that there was a spill there.”

After the hearing, Democratic lawmakers began to push for the changes recommended by the DNR and environmental groups. 

“Everyone deserves to feel confident knowing that the water coming out of their tap is safe to drink,” Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska), who represents the PFAS-polluted town of Campbell, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the bill as currently drafted does not meet the needs of the residents in the Town of Campbell in La Crosse County. This bill is a start, but it needs substantial improvements to help all Wisconsinites who have been affected by PFAS contamination.”

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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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