Evers calls on Legislature to release PFAS funds, approve DNR groundwater rule

By: - December 20, 2023 5:45 am
PFAS foam on a lake in Oscoda, Michigan | Photo by Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

PFAS foam on a lake in Oscoda, Michigan | Photo by Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

The Evers administration pushed back on two fronts Tuesday against Republican lawmakers Gov. Tony Evers says are holding up efforts to combat PFAS contamination. Evers called on the Republican leaders to release money already earmarked for cleaning up “forever chemicals.” Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced that it was suspending a rulemaking process to set a legal limit for PFAS in groundwater. The agency cited a 2017 state law known as the REINS Act, which requires state agencies to get legislative approval whenever the costs of a proposed rule on businesses, local governments and individuals are estimated to exceed $10 million. 

Evers urged the Republican-held Legislature to act promptly to release $125 million earmarked in the state’s 2023-25 budget for PFAS cleanup that has languished in a trust fund controlled by the Joint Finance Committee because of a failure to reach a compromise over how exactly that money should be spent. 

He also wrote to Republican senators urging them to pass legislation that would grant an exception under the REINS Act so that the groundwater rulemaking could move forward.

Budget provision for PFAS cleanup

As part of the state budget signed earlier this year, Republicans included the $125 million in a PFAS trust fund but did not include the specifics for how it would be spent. 

Republicans have spent the legislative session negotiating with the DNR as well as conservation and business groups over how to structure the legislation to get that money out the door. The final version of the bill lacked Democratic support because of complaints that Republicans did too much to shield polluting businesses from liability for the environmental damage caused by PFAS pollution. 

“Ensuring access to clean drinking water — including getting PFAS, lead, and other harmful contaminants out of our water — has been a priority of mine since Day One,” Evers said in a statement Tuesday. “While I was proud of the bipartisan work accomplished in the budget to secure the first real, meaningful investment by legislative Republicans to address PFAS contamination statewide, I am disheartened at the lack of urgency that has followed since. Republicans’ continued obstruction of basic government functions is playing politics with our water and peoples’ lives and their livelihoods. Whether they rely on municipal water systems or private wells, every Wisconsinite should be able to trust that the water coming from their tap is safe, healthy, and free of contaminants, and leaders in this state should be working together to make sure the DNR can do their important work to not only conserve and manage our state’s natural resources but ensure Wisconsinites have access to clean, safe water that families, farmers, communities, and so many others rely upon every day.”

PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the body or the environment. A family of man-made compounds, PFAS have been used in a variety of products for decades, 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.

Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) discusses the amendments to his bill to address PFAS contamination across Wisconsin. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

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 earlier this year, testing in Stella has found some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination in the country.

The $125 million in the trust fund is controlled by the Joint Finance Committee, which Republicans control with a 12-4 majority. On Tuesday, Evers issued an official request — known as a 13.10 — that the committee release the funds to local communities so PFAS contamination across the state can be addressed.

After Evers made his request, legislative Democrats and conservation organizations backed the demand, arguing that Wisconsinites’ clean water cannot be subject to delays in the political process. 

“The DNR has been addressing PFAS contamination in Wisconsin for years without meaningful assistance from the legislature,” Midwest Environmental Advocates Staff Attorney Rob Lee said in a statement. “The DNR knows where this money can have the largest positive impact on public health, and we should give it the tools necessary to get a handle on the situation without undermining the agency’s ability to fully address PFAS contamination in the long term.” 

Delayed groundwater rule 

The creation of a groundwater rule has already been delayed, preventing the 30% of Wisconsinites who get their drinking water from private wells from being protected by a rule limiting the amount of contaminants that can be found in their water. Last year, the Natural Resources Board (NRB) failed to reach an agreement on the limit for groundwater while it passed limits for public drinking water systems and surface water. 

As the Legislature has been undergoing the negotiation process on the PFAS funding bill, advocates from communities affected by PFAS contamination have often said the issues at stake in the bill aren’t what they’ve asked for. Instead, they’ve said, they want the Legislature to take action to set a groundwater standard. 

Republicans have regularly balked at the request and often been hostile to the DNR’s proposed groundwater rule. Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) claimed that support for the rule, which was estimated to exceed the $10 million limit set in the REINS Act, was her reason for opposing the confirmation of several of Evers’ nominees to the NRB. 

“The folly of the REINS Act has become clear when the legislature appropriates $125 million to ‘begin’ addressing PFAS contamination but then triggers a ‘cease and desist’ order to DNR because a PFAS groundwater standard might cost more than $10 million,” Doug Oitzinger, the former mayor of Marinette, said in a statement.

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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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