Wisconsin’s efforts to track and contain PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and their chemical cousins continue. Although the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has adjusted its operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PFAS testing and treatment have not halted.
PFAS are part of a group of man-made compounds, ranging in the thousands, which were used over decades in numerous products, from non-stick pans to fast food wrappers and anti-stick clothing. They have an uncanny ability to repel water and oil, and have also been used in larger scale industrial projects. PFAS, along with PFOS and other related chemicals, have been linked to a variety of health issues both in animals and humans.
States are working to set recommended limits for how much PFAS is considered safe in water supplies. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has stated that PFAS levels exceeding 20 ppt (parts per trillion) are not safe for human consumption. Diseased and dying livestock, wildlife, family pets, even birth defects and cancers in humans have been blamed on high levels of PFAS contamination in water.
These compounds, however, are remarkably dynamic in the way that they move around the environment. PFAS, PFOS, and related chemicals have been detected in landfills, private wells, bio-masses, waterways, the air, and in the very tissues of living creatures. Christine Haag, DNR remediation and redevelopment program director, says, “this is still very emerging as a science.” Eerily, she notes, “once it enters the environment it moves through. It doesn’t really seem to have an end-point where it’s captured and contained.” Thus, PFAS and PFOS compounds have been dubbed, “forever chemicals,” which do not break down.
Addressing Wisconsin’s own PFAS contamination became a top priority for the state government recently. In February, the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality introduced a package of 10 water-related bills, including measures to address PFAS contamination. That same month, the Wisconsin PFAS Action Council (WisPAC) began developing an action plan to prioritize PFAS responses statewide. Those responses have been retooled to work around the coronavirus pandemic.
Haag says she was “pretty astonished” at how quickly staff transitioned. The changes included moving the agency’s over 3,500 staff off-site, including part-time employees some of whom, Haag explained, did not have computers or other devices at home.
“Just speaking for my own program,” Haag tells Wisconsin Examiner, “there probably was a two-week period of time in late March where there was an awful lot of effort spent on getting people computers, phones, and learning how to do this remotely.” Haag and her colleagues were faced with new and pressing challenges, such as continuing to coordinate emergency spill responses, and other operations. “We had to put a system in place for how we were going to ensure that the agency, not just our functions but all emergency functions that the agency has, how we were going to continue to ensure public safety.”
Once staff re-organized their communication and coordination methods, around week three, “we started going about our regular business again.” Haag recalls that the first meeting she had which didn’t involve COVID-19 ended up being about PFAS. “It was oddly relieving,” says Haag, “I was happy to have that conversation.” On April 15, the DNR also hosted an online meeting in Marinette, to provide updates on PFAS operations across the state. “We have not suspended any state laws,” Haag says. “All state laws are in effect. So, no one has pressed the pause button and said, ‘everyone has a pass.’”
Unfortunately, however, the DNR isn’t the only crucial portion of the PFAS clean up equation. Companies like Johnson Controls, and it’s subsidiary Tyco Fire Products, are responsible for gathering water sample tests, and ultimately cleaning up contamination sites. Because the companies are responsible for individual contamination sites, they are responsible for cleaning up their mess, with monitoring and oversight from the DNR.
The private entities are also responsible for providing emergency bottled water supplies to residents whose wells test positive for high levels of PFAS compounds. Just last week, emergency water was issued for three homeowners in the Marinette and Peshtigo areas of the state. Both regions have densely clustered contamination sites which have been identified by the DNR and others. Tight clusters of contamination sites have also been identified in Milwaukee, Madison, Monroe County, as well as other individually identified sites in other regions of the state.
Some of the organizations involved in these efforts have not developed a COVID plan as quickly as the DNR. “We, as an agency, are working with those consultants and those responsible parties to figure out what field work is safe under COVID,” explains Haag. “How do you do that if you can’t have staff that can safely work alone in the field? How does this work so that we make sure we’re complying with the Safer at Home order and, ever importantly, that we are not putting people at risk of COVID while still needing to meet our essential responsibilities?”
Haag says that laying all of this out is still, “a work in progress.” Johnson Controls has sent the DNR a request to freeze sampling during the pandemic. Currently, the department is reviewing the request. “The devil is in the details,” Haag says.
Each request that the agency receives has to be reviewed meticulously. “The entire agency has the same process. We are asking the same questions of all regulated entities, ‘please tell us who you are and why you can’t be in compliance, and what your ask is.” Whether it’s more time to process and report sample tests, or to modify operations in other ways. Of Johnson Controls Haag says, “We are evaluating their request, and the DNR has not issued approval at this time to suspend that testing.”