PFAS “compromise bill” moving forward in state

    Firefighters use a foam product to suppress a blaze. Photo from National PFAS Contamination Coalition, licensed under Creative Commons
    Firefighters use a foam product to suppress a blaze. Photo from National PFAS Contamination Coalition, licensed under Creative Commons

    Wisconsin continues to develop a legislative response to the spread of PFAS chemicals across the state, in what is becoming a bipartisan race against time. Recently, a bill pushed by two representatives from communities hit hard by PFAS contamination, Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) and Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), seeks to allocate $7.7 million to a multi-faceted push against the chemicals.

    “Today,” reads a joint statement from the offices of Nygren and Hansen, “we are pleased to announce a bipartisan bill that will help the state better regulate PFAS chemicals and ensure clean drinking water for residents in contaminated areas.” It addresses a number of issues, including shortfalls in water testing and research to understand the so-called “forever” compounds.

    PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a chemical group which originates from man-made products, such as non-stick pans, fast food wrappers and firefighting foam. Although they come from a variety of man-made products, the foam is increasingly seen as a major source of contamination in Wisconsin. Once in the water supply, the compounds essentially don’t break down and can lead to health issues in humans and in the wider ecosystems they contaminate.

    Public hearings held in Marinette, Wisconsin attracted residents who shared stories of everything from cancer diagnoses to losing pets to what they believed to be PFAS-contaminated water. The chemicals and private efforts to downplay the severity of water contamination are also the subject of the new movie Dark Waters.

    “This bill is another piece of legislation in response to PFAS contamination that together represents a swift and aggressive response by the state to ensure clean drinking water for residents across the state of Wisconsin,” said Nygren and Hansen. The $7.7 million would be distributed in a variety of ways including:

    • $5 million to fund grants for municipalities to address and clean up contaminated sites.
    • $1 million allocated to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to test water systems for PFAS.
    • $150,000 to analyze wildlife for contamination
    • $120,000 to provide temporary drinking water or treatment programs
    • $250,000 to fund research in the UW System

    The bills also continue efforts to establish rules and regulations for PFAS groundwater standards, and order the Department of Health Services (DHS) to provide free blood testing for people near contamination sites by September. Water quality activists applaud the bill, though the notion that it’s a compromise of sorts isn’t lost on them.

    Carly Michiels, director of government relations for Clean Wisconsin, compared the bill to the Clear Act, introduced by five Democratic representatives in 2019, Hansen among them. It differed from the recent bipartisan bill in that, along with PFAS and PFOS compounds, PFHxS, PFNA, PFBS, and PFHpA chemicals would also have been included in the stages of rule-making and contamination research.

    Despite that, Michiels feel the compromise bill still gives DHS enough discretion for their role in establishing groundwater standards. “I think that was a really good compromise,” Michiels told Wisconsin Examiner. “It was really great to see that they allocated money, resources, set up this action fund to keep doing this work.” The blood testing pilot, and other efforts at analyzing the relationship between PFAS and cancer were more points of encouragement for Michiels.    

    Nevertheless, she admits, “I think we are kind of playing catch-up just because our neighbor, Michigan, has already done so much and has already put a ton of research and funding and made the structure to start dealing with, cleaning, and enforcing PFAS contamination.” On the other hand, Wisconsin is only just beginning to grasp  the full scale of the problem.

    “The DNR is currently investigating over 30 [contamination] sites in Wisconsin, and even at the beginning of the year I think it only started off at 12. So it’s really in one year, we’re learning a lot, we’re doing a lot,” she explained. It’s why Michiels feels the bill is so important, compromise or not. “We can’t wait to start doing stuff like this, and providing the necessary resources, and funding, and staff to deal with the problem.”

    It will be a big step if the bill passes in its current form, as the legislature isn’t just racing the chemicals spreading downstream. “There is only a month left of session,” Michiels warned Wisconsin Examiner, “and they’ve got to get this bill through committee, and both houses. So I hope they really put in the work to get that done.”

    After establishing the framework laid out by the bill, the next step will be putting a  new apparatus into action. “There’s some things going on like the PFAS action council, putting together a multi-agency plan for how to start doing some of this work. And that’s supposed to be done by the end of June,” said Michiels. “So that’s the next thing we’re going to be looking forward to, especially with all the rule-making going on, what’s going to be the next action at the state level?”

    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, and other outlets.