Environmental groups can file brief, but not join WMC lawsuit against hazardous contamination law

By: - September 17, 2021 1:25 pm

Foam products used by firefighters contain PFAS. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

A Waukesha County judge will allow a group of environmental organizations to file a “friend of the court” brief in a lawsuit brought by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business lobbying group, against the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). 

The WMC lawsuit challenges Wisconsin’s “spills law,” which forces anyone who is responsible for contaminating the air, water or land with hazardous materials to work to restore the affected environment. WMC, on behalf of Leather Rich Inc. — an Oconomowoc-based dry cleaner — wants to block the portions of the law that hold companies responsible for the cleanup of their pollution. 

The organizations had sought to intervene in the case to defend the DNR and the spills law. 

The law has been in effect for decades and is often used to assist with cleanup of harmful “forever chemicals” such as PFAS that have affected waterways across the state. PFAS have been found in lakes and groundwater near Madison as well as places near industrial sites such as Marinette. The chemicals have been linked to cancer.

The lawsuit was brought in February in Waukesha County court after the DNR made Leather Rich Inc. pay to test its property for contaminants when its owners attempted to sell the business and retire. The suit seeks to force the DNR to develop a rule that lists the contaminants that apply to the spills law. Currently, the law only states that hazardous materials are anything “that can cause harm to human health and safety, or the environment, because of where it is spilled, the amount spilled, its toxicity or its concentration.”

In June, Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA), on behalf of several other environmental groups, asked the court to allow them to join the case or file briefs arguing on the side of the DNR.

“More specifically, this case is about whether the DNR will retain its most effective — and arguably only meaningful — regulatory authority to address contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”), highly toxic human-made chemicals that are increasingly being detected in the environment and drinking water sources, including right here in Wisconsin,” the June motion states. 

On Friday, Judge Michael Bohren said that the groups couldn’t join the case but could file an amicus brief in defense of the law. 

At a news conference before the hearing, representatives of the environmental groups said if WMC succeeds, Wisconsin’s environmental protections will be gutted and communities across the state will be harmed. 

“While legal disputes about DNR’s authority might seem academic, the outcome of this lawsuit will have real-world consequences for the health of people all over the state,” Dr. Beth Neary, co-president of Wisconsin Environmental Health Network, said. “If WMC succeeds in this case, Wisconsin would be forced back into the dark ages of environmental protection, where we could remain for a very long time. We owe it to our children to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

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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.