A PFAS advisory sign along Starkweather Creek. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
Wisconsin Republican Senators voted to advance a bill to address PFAS contamination across the state despite objections from Democrats and conservation groups that it gives a pass to polluters while preventing the state from responding to contamination.
The bill has been subject to months of negotiations and attempts at compromise between both parties, conservation groups, the state Department of Natural Resources and business interests. Despite those attempts to get every side on board, Democrats and conservationists argued that the bill’s Republican authors sided too much with polluting industries.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted 22-11 to advance the bill. The Assembly version of the bill has still not been advanced out of committee.
The bill is meant to be the vehicle through which $125 million in funding set aside in the state budget for PFAS cleanup will be spent — creating several grant programs aimed at covering costs to municipalities and landowners dealing with PFAS pollution. Since the bill’s introduction, Democrats and conservation groups have raised concerns that certain provisions undercut the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to hold polluters accountable. Meanwhile business groups have also objected to the bill, hoping to prevent the DNR from exercising too much authority.
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. Since the bill’s introduction, testing in Stella has found some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination in the country.
Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), one of the bill’s authors, has argued the warnings are overblown and he’s just trying to protect property owners who have PFAS-contaminated water on the property through no fault of their own. Opponents of the bill say it defines innocent landowners to include the industries that have caused the pollution in the first place.
The bill includes a section titled “limitations on DNR actions relating to PFAS” which has drawn complaints from clean water advocates. The section includes a provision that requires the DNR to get permission from property owners before testing for PFAS on their land and if a landowner qualifies for the “innocent landowner” grant program — another piece of the bill — the DNR cannot take any enforcement action against the landowner. Advocates have warned that the current eligibility requirements for the innocent landowner grants expand the program to include organizations responsible for PFAS pollution.
Wimberger’s district includes northeastern parts of the state that have been heavily affected by PFAS pollution because of contamination from local manufacturers. Locals have also objected to his bill, stating it wasn’t something they asked for and that the DNR needs all the tools it can get to combat contamination.
After the vote, Wimberger and co-author, Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), celebrated the passage as a win for clean drinking water.
“This bill delivers needed relief to affected communities and expands critical protections for innocent landowners,” Wimberger said in a statement. “Across Wisconsin, people, through no fault of their own, have property contaminated with PFAS and face financial ruin from devaluation and remediation orders. People are currently forced with choosing between knowing their contamination levels for health, or preserving their financial security. The passage today brings us a step closer to fixing this dynamic and ensuring innocent landowners feel safe testing so we can begin making needed progress towards clean water.”
Throughout the drafting process, Wimberger has said that Democrats need to recognize that they must give up some things when moving a bill through a divided government. But Democrats and conservation groups said on Tuesday that the final version of the bill does too much to protect “polluters and property values” and doesn’t do enough to actually protect drinking water.
“This is not the bill Wisconsin needs. Wisconsinites who are dealing with PFAS contamination — from Marinette and Peshtigo to the Town of Campbell and everywhere in between — have said time and again that Senate Bill 312 does not give them the help they desperately need,” Erik Kanter, government affairs director for Clean Wisconsin, said in a statement. “This bill is too focused on protecting polluters and property values with too little concern for people and public health. After six months, Wisconsinites dealing daily with the fallout of PFAS pollution are left with a bill that falls short. How much longer will they have to wait for the solution they deserve?”
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