Environmental group petitions DNR to institute PFAS standards for groundwater

By: - July 5, 2022 3:53 pm
Water pouring out of a faucet into a glass for drinking

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An environmental group has filed a petition with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), asking the department to establish rules and standards guiding the maximum amount of PFAS allowed in the state’s groundwater. 

PFAS, a family of man-made chemicals that are known to cause cancer and other negative health effects commonly present in firefighting foams and household goods such as nonstick pans, have been found in water supplies across the state. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade in the environment or the body. 

The regulation of the chemicals has become controversial, with the state’s largest business lobby recently successfully suing to prevent the DNR from holding companies responsible for PFAS contamination under the state’s decades old Spills Law. 

Earlier this year, the state’s Natural Resources Board (NRB) approved standards for the amount of PFAS allowed in drinking and surface water, but could not come to an agreement on standards for groundwater — citing a difference in what the state’s Department of Health Services (DHS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said was a safe amount. DHS had said the limit for two compounds under the PFAS family — PFOS and PFOA — should be 20 parts per trillion but the EPA’s standards said 70 parts per million. 

The inability to reach consensus on the groundwater standards is part of an ongoing controversy at the NRB involving Republican-appointee Frederick Prehn, who has refused to leave his seat on the board even though his term expired last May. Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that he is legally allowed to remain in the post until his replacement is confirmed by the Republican-held state Senate. 

Last month, the EPA updated its standards for the two chemicals to 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt, respectively. 

On Friday, Midwest Environmental Advocates, on behalf of water quality organization S.O.H20 and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, filed a petition with the DNR to institute groundwater standards now that the EPA’s health advisory is much lower than the initial DHS suggestion. 

The groundwater standards affect the nearly one million Wisconsin households that get their water from private wells. 

“EPA has now revised its health advisory levels for those two PFAS and established new health advisory levels for other two PFAS based on current toxicological and epidemiological data, establishing a link between associated adverse health impacts and PFAS exposure at concentrations significantly lower than previously determined by either EPA or DHS,” the petition states. “Without groundwater standards, nearly one million Wisconsin households, including members of our organizational clients, that rely on private wells for their drinking water lack adequate protection from the PFAS identified in this petition. DNR has the responsibility to act in protection of these Wisconsinites under Chapter 160 of the Wisconsin Statutes.”

The MEA and the two groups have asked the DNR to add PFOS and PFOA, along with two other related chemicals, PFBS and GenX, to its list of groundwater contaminants. If the petition is granted, the list of contaminants will be forwarded to DHS which will recommend health-based standards. After the standards are recommended, the DNR can begin the rulemaking process. 

Leaders of the groups bringing the petition said that it’s imperative that the DNR act because it is the agency responsible for keeping the state’s water safe and to protect rural residents who rely on private wells. 

“The NRB passed a drinking water standard for users of municipal water systems, but left rural families, farmers and other users of private wells without protections,” Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters, said in a statement. “It shouldn’t matter whether your drinking water comes from a municipal water utility or a private well — everyone deserves to be protected from these dangerous chemicals.”


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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.