New rule-making push on PFAS water contamination

By: - October 24, 2019 7:10 am
water faucet

(photo from Creative Commons)

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board (NRB) on Wednesday moved to establish a rule making process for PFAS levels in water sources for Wisconsinites. The unanimous vote represents another step in addressing water contamination issues statewide.

PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of man-made chemicals used in products like non-stick cooking supplies, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and firefighting foams. The chemicals have existed on the market for decades, and have left their mark on local environments due to spills, discharges of PFAS-contaminated water into treatment plants and through the use of firefighting foam.

In August, Gov. Tony Evers called on the Natural Resources Board to address PFAS contamination and reshape rules around the chemicals. “I am committed to protecting our state’s natural resources and ensuring every Wisconsinite has access to clean drinking water,” said Evers. “In the Year of Clean Drinking Water, I’m proud that my cabinet is working with communities, citizens, and businesses to address PFAS contamination across our state.”

DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole said, “We cannot live without clean drinking water. It is too important for the human existence.” Cole has made it a priority to advance the DNR’s new collaborative efforts with other parts of Wisconsin’s government saying, “there is no substitute for clean drinking water.”

PFAS chemicals have been linked to a number of human health problems including thyroid disease, low birth weights, cancer and immune system issues. In addition to contaminated water supplies like landfills, industrial areas and firefighting training facilities, PFAS chemicals can also be found in animals like fish and humans. In the case of living organisms, the compounds can persist within the body and build up over time.

“This is nasty stuff,” said NRB Chairman Dr. Frederick Prehn, in a press release. “The state is trying to get ahead of the eight ball because in other cases where we haven’t, it’s been devastating. I think it’s important for the state to have standards.” A table of proposed rule changes and amendments by the DNR can be found here.

Calls to address water quality issues in Wisconsin have grown louder and louder over the last year. In Milwaukee, the replacement of lead laterals in low-income neighborhoods have become a popular cause. The city of Waukesha, seeking to secure cleaner water supplies, is also pushing to divert water from Lake Michigan through Milwaukee. The project would be paid for by Waukesha, but it has stirred controversy over protections for the Great Lakes, which were weakened under the administration of Gov. Scott Walker.

“Folks should be able to trust the water coming from their tap,” said Evers. “I’m proud that my administration is taking a lead on the issue of water quality in the Year of Clean Drinking Water, and I’m hopeful that the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality will take up these recommendations to ensure clean water is a reality across our state.”

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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.