Brief

Natural Resources Board rejects scientists’ advice in setting PFAS limits

By: - February 24, 2022 6:13 am
Menominee River sign reading Clean Water Maters on a cut out fish

Sign at water celebration near Menominee River | Laina G. Stebbins

Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board (NRB) voted 6-1 Wednesday to impose limits for PFAS, PFOA, and PFOS chemicals in drinking water, set at 70 parts per trillion (ppt), far from the 20ppt recommended by the Department of Health Services. The lower limit was rejected by the board, with board members pointing to high costs associated with replacing and treating wells. Environmental advocates are decrying the decision as hazardous to people who consume affected drinking water throughout the state.

“Everyone in Wisconsin has a right to drink clean water and eat the fish they catch,” said Clean Wisconsin water program director Scott Laeser. “The Natural Resources Board’s action today to approve surface water and modified drinking water standards is an incomplete but important step down the long road we must all walk together to fix this mess.” While setting standards of any kind is a positive, Laeser stressed that “by voting down groundwater standards, the board failed to protect the tens of thousands of Wisconsin rural families who draw their water from private wells. The drinking water rule passed by the NRB today will only apply to municipal water systems.”

It’s not uncommon to hear about Wisconsinites who receive emergency bottled water supplies because of a contaminated private well. PFAS and it’s like are part of a larger group of man-made compounds which saw wide usage in a wide variety of products from firefighting foam, to non-stick coatings on cooking wear and fast food wrappers. They’ve been linked to cancers, thyorid disorders, and other chronic diseases and do not break down in the environment or within our bodies, ever. For that reason, PFAS have been dubbed “forever chemicals.”

Laeser said the vote demonstrated “a distrust of science among some NRB members, who sought to discredit the work of experts at the Department of Health Services and successfully raised the drinking water limit to a combined 70 ppt, more than three times higher than the recommendation from public health officials.” He accused the board of using a predictable “playbook” by “claiming scientific uncertainties warranted weaker standards.”

Particularly, Laeser pointed to the ongoing presence of Fred Prehn on the board. Prehn refused to give up his seat on the board despite an expired term limit, and has resisted open records requests related to his conversations with lobbyists about his effort  to remain on the board and influence policy. Laeser denounced Prehn’s “continuing abuse of power” which “led to both bad decisions on groundwater standards and insulting behavior, conduct unbecoming of a public official, elected or not. As long as Prehn remains in this illegitimate role on the board, more decisions, and behavior, surely lie ahead. Wisconsin families will continue to suffer as a consequence.”

The rules must be signed by Gov. Tony Evers, and make their way through the Legislature before they become codified as Wisconsin law. For now, Wisconsin is joining 16 other states taking such action to set standards to protect against PFAS contamination in water.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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