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Saturday, June 19, 2021
Photo of a fish advisory sign and a man on a pier looking out towards Lake Monona.

DNR Secretary Preston Cole supported Evers’ budget measures that would address PFAS before a committee that is beginning to develop its own budget. PFAS contamination has recently affected drinking water on French Island and fishing communities in Madison. 

‘Allow us to do the work’: DNR wants budget to include funding for PFAS testing

Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole asked the state’s budget writing committee to support investments to address PFAS contamination across the state last week. 

The “forever chemicals” are a group of chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS, that pose risks to human health. While PFAS are common in the environment, heightened levels have affected drinking water and fishing in communities around the state.  

Residents of French Island, which sits on the Mississippi River and is part of the La Crosse Metropolitan Area recently received bottled water from the state after the Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a drinking water advisory due to PFAS contamination. 

The contamination likely stems from the La Crosse Regional Airport, where firefighting foam containing the chemicals have been tested and used

“We have far too many people in far too many communities across the state of Wisconsin that are encumbered by PFAS in their drinking water, and we think that’s a high priority for public health,” Cole said. 

PFAS have also been detected in Madison’s five lakes, affecting the fishing community. The DNR is testing fish samples and expects results this spring.

Gov. Tony Evers’ biennial budget recommends $2.1 million over two years for monitoring and testing, $20 million over two years in grants for local governments to test and remediate PFAS and $1 million to collect and dispose PFAS-containing firefighting foam. 

“The opportunity there is to tackle this in earnest, we’re not the only state that is tackling this,” Cole said. “You have to know which water systems have it and which ones don’t. We then target our work there, and set up protocols and standards for adherence.” 

The budget also recommends adding 11 DNR staff positions to carry out the state’s PFAS Action Council Plan, which was delivered to Evers in December 2020. 

Cole explained that beyond public health concerns, PFAS also pose an economic threat to communities where tourists hunt and fish. 

“What our intent is to work with the public health officials to identify and hire people to do the testing because we have a nature-based outdoor economy,” Cole said. 

The Joint Finance Committee plans to rewrite Evers’ budget and has begun hearing from agencies like the DNR and the public. Republicans control the committee and plan to scrap some provisions in Evers’ proposal while the committee’s Democrats supported the governor’s plans. 

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“Today’s briefings showed that we are truly at a crossroads in Wisconsin,” Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said. “When we invest in water quality by confronting PFAS contamination and the lead pipe crisis, we can protect the health and wellbeing of our kids and families. Governor Evers’ budget chooses to invest in a better, brighter future so we all can bounce back from the COVID crisis.”

This week, Republicans passed bills that would require the governor to distribute federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act toward certain policies like broadband, but Evers is likely to veto the measures. The governor has authority over the distribution of federal funding. 

The Republicans’ bill that addresses environmental concerns includes requiring the DNR to establish a program that would expand well testing programs. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said that the items “represent strong consensus provisions related to water improvements that largely align with the Governor’s budget proposal.”

The science behind PFAS

Research suggests that exposure to PFAS can increase cholesterol levels, affect fertility and lower infant birth rates, according to the Wisconsin DHS

Once PFAS are detected in groundwater, they are hard to get rid of, explained UW-Madison engineering professor Christy Remucal, who has conducted research on PFAS contamination in the Marinette area.

“One of the things that’s really challenging with this group of chemicals is that they are really, really persistent. They last a really long time. Compared to a lot of contaminants that we know how to deal with, they’re really hard to remove,” Remucal said. 

Remucal explained that for places like French Island, the long-term solution is to either find a new water source or develop a treatment approach.

Remucal said that because the chemicals have been used for decades, they move around in the environment and are found “pretty much everywhere that we look.” The real concern is the high levels in places like French Island, compared to areas with lower concentrations like Madison.

“The thing is, of course, how much there are in different places,” she explained. “If you look at our drinking water in Madison, our water utility has done a really good job of measuring for these chemicals and making that data publicly available.”

Beyond groundwater, Remucal explained that PFOS especially bioaccumulates in fish, leading to advisories for places like Starkweather Creek in Madison. 

“If you think about a lot of these sites, say at the airport, you get this contamination in the groundwater, groundwater moves really slowly, it takes a long time to hit these rivers. Those problems are going to be with us for a long time, even pollution that happened decades ago,” she said.

Establishing standards

Remucal said that scientists want to see regulations at the federal level, but that states have been “taking matters into their own hands” and developing their own regulations. 

The EPA is moving forward on regulating PFOS and PFOA, but established a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has recommended a standard of 20 parts per trillion. 

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., whose district includes La Crosse and French Island, helped introduce legislation Tuesday that would require the EPA to establish a national drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS within two years, among other provisions. 

“PFAS pose serious and very real risk to human health and our environment — it’s something my neighbors on French Island are dealing with at this very moment — and we need all hands on deck to tackle this growing crisis,” Kind said. “This legislation will set drinking water standards and designate these chemicals as hazardous to allow the EPA to help clean up contaminated sites in Wisconsin and across the country.”

The DNR is in the process of developing standards for PFAS in surface water, groundwater and drinking water, which will eventually require approval from Republicans in the legislature. 

Legal and legislative battles

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying group, has argued in court that the agency does not have the authority to conduct testing without standards in place. 

WMC and the DNR recently reached an agreement not to publicly release the results of wastewater sampling. The DNR can publish data that does not link the results to a specific facility, address or county. 

WMC had filed lawsuits against the DNR for conducting wastewater sampling for PFAS and requiring businesses to investigate and cleanup PFAS in state environmental programs, WPR reported. 

At the budget briefing, Cole explained that the DNR is “not trying to run anyone out of business” and noted that companies are investing in firefighting foams that do not contain PFAS. 

In December, the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules suspended parts of a DNR emergency rule that would prohibit most uses of firefighting foams with PFAS. It could still be used in training if containment, treatment, disposal and storage measures are in place. 

The DNR was directed to develop the rule a year ago after Evers signed a measure that was supported by Republican lawmakers to limit the use of the foam. 

The WMC told the Cap Times that the proposed detection levels in treated wastewater was where the rule went too far, explaining that an amendment proposed by Democrats that would require the DNR to establish levels and standards previously failed. 

Cole said that the state should work on getting the fire fighting foams “off the landscape” and that the DNR has been working with fire chiefs to meet that goal. 

Two bills in the Assembly and Senate would require the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to collect and store or dispose of foams that contain PFAS. The bills are currently in committees and are supported by both Republicans and Democrats. 

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Hope Karnopp

state news writer

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