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Saturday, February 24, 2024
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Wisconsin continues to battle water contamination. Rural areas get hit the hardest.

Aging infrastructure and underfunded programs continue to hinder Wisconsin’s efforts for clean water.

Last October, citizens of Peshtigo, Wisconsin gathered for a meeting and waited for state officials to deliver news that there is a clear path forward to one day drink their own homes’ well water. 

But the town walked away empty-handed. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials admitted that, without clear guidance from the state government, their hands are tied.

Peshtigo’s approximately 4,000 residents have faced years-long efforts to secure safe drinking water after the DNR found dangerous amounts of PFAS contamination in the Peshtigo-Marinette area in 2019.

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a class of chemicals widely used in various industrial and consumer goods from nonstick cookware to firefighting foams. They are commonly known as “forever chemicals” for their tenacity in the environment and the human body and are known to cause multi-systemic health complications, including carcinogenic effects.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last year that 12 out of 40 samples of municipal tap water across Wisconsin contained PFAS. Though most sources did not exceed the EPA’s allowed limit according to the report, the agency admits that virtually no amount is truly harmless.

Peshtigo is seeking legal reparations from the polluters. 

Within the same month, the Town of Peshtigo filed a lawsuit against Tyco Fire Products and other chemical companies and firms involved in the manufacturing of PFAS located in nearby Marinette.

The suit alleges over 230 drinking water wells in the town have been heavily contaminated due to Tyco and other companies testing firefighting foam containing PFAS outdoors for decades since 1962.

"I am confident that the judicial process will help restore our town and begin to return to us what Tyco, JCI and the other defendants have taken: our water, our safety and ultimately our peace of mind,” Cindy Boyle, Peshtigo town chairwoman, said in an October 2022 press release.

So far, Tyco and the DNR can both agree the company polluted a sliver of the town known as the “potable well sampling area.” Tyco supplies water filtration systems and bottled water for 169 homes in this area but does not assume further liability.

The company also unveiled a $25 million Groundwater Extraction and Treatment System to remove groundwater chemicals in the area surrounding the fire testing facility in Marinette.

The number of contaminated homes under Tyco’s umbrella of responsibility is hotly debated. The DNR found forever chemicals at elevated levels outside of the area Tyco takes responsibility for, but Tyco attributes it to the ubiquity of PFAS in other industries and products that could be to blame.

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The risks behind how rural Wisconsin sources water

PFAS pollution is not the only challenge faced by Wisconsinites seeking clean, secure drinking water. The contamination of Wisconsin groundwater has been a ubiquitous problem for over 50 years, according to a report by the DNR. 

Agricultural pollutants such as nitrate runoff from industrial fertilizers can cause severe birth defects and ecological disruption. The DNR’s report found that about 10% of private wells exceeded the EPA's maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrate-N. In agricultural areas, such as south-central Wisconsin, around 20%-30% of private well samples exceed the MCL. 

A 2023 analysis from the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council (GCC) expects that replacing contaminated private wells could cost over $10 million in some counties, totaling $446M statewide.

Sierra Club, a climate action nonprofit, determined 90% of nitrate in Wisconsin comes from manure or excess fertilizer runoff due to inadequate safety precautions or careless farming practices.

Approximately two-thirds of Wisconsin residents get their drinking water from groundwater, according to the DNR. The fewer resources available to small rural municipal water systems make these communities vulnerable to Wisconsin’s worsening nitrate issues

Nitrates can be a problem in agricultural areas due to fertilizer runoff and manure spreading. Between 2003 and 2017, contamination worsened in 165 Wisconsin towns by an average of 46%, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Replacing a single contaminated well can cost up to several thousands of dollars. Treatments for contaminated wells may be covered under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, but the landowner’s family or business income may not exceed $100,000 for the prior calendar year, and the landowner must submit multiple samples for eligibility.

A 2017 study by Kristen M.C. Malecki et al. found that of people who depended on wells, only about one-half of respondents reported testing their wells in the last ten years. Of that half, only 10% reported testing in the last 12 months. Malecki et al. also stated that barriers to testing can be largely attributed to social norms, knowledge about risks and convenience. 

However, cost is not the main disincentive for proper well maintenance. An earlier 2008 survey of 1,447 private well owners by the DNR showed that only 13% of private well owners who did not test their water listed cost as a barrier to testing. Over 80% stated their reason for not testing was because their “water tastes and looks fine,” and an estimated 45% were unsure what to test for.

Although the DNR regulates the construction of private wells, the wells receive little attention once in place. There is no requirement that private wells be tested, including when a home is sold. 

Accessibility remains a challenge for small and rural communities

State and federal officials have apportioned over $100M through the state budget, national Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other sources for Wisconsin’s water issues. Targeted projects include PFAS treatment and infrastructure upgrades, but their accessibility for rural towns and villages remains unclear.

Drinking water violations increased in smaller systems nationwide even as larger systems saw decreases, indicating that water services to rural and small communities are lagging behind, according to the EPA.

Contamination was “more likely to get worse” in smaller communities between 2003 and 2017, according to the EWG, and 83% of systems where contamination increased served 3,300 people or fewer.

Rural communities face more hurdles in obtaining state and federal funding and are more often underfunded and understaffed, according to Wisconsin Watch

In the competition for federal funding, smaller systems are disadvantaged with their restricted budgets and overworked staff, especially when applications are detailed and arduous.

Often, the municipalities only have a choice between stretching their staff thinner or hiring an expensive consultant — if they can afford the funding match requirement at all.

Match requirements are common in federal funding programs and discriminate funding distribution based on whether a recipient can match a certain amount of the grant. Over 60% of federal resilience funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law requires a local match.

U.S. Government Accountability Office reports on flood mitigation and disaster recovery pointed out how match requirements restrict the ability of some communities to take action on climate risk. They proposed making funding requirements more flexible by reducing or even eliminating match requirements.

New legislation and funding for water protection

The rise in PFAS controversy has inspired more legislation and funding in favor of updating Wisconsin’s water services. The state’s biennium budget allocates $125 million towards repairing water contamination.

Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, authored a bill to fund a program empowering municipalities and water utility entities to conduct testing for PFAS levels in water systems and build infrastructure to address PFAS contamination. 

Landowners and private well users would also be able to seek grants for treatment.

However, Wimberger’s bill would require recipients to match up to 20% of the funding for many of the grants, something underfunded communities may not be able to afford. 

The bill also limits when the DNR can test for PFAS on private land and prevents the agency from taking enforcement action unless it can demonstrate harm to public health or the environment, according to The Cap Times.

In March 2022, Peshtigo residents petitioned federal officials to criticize the fire testing facility under the Superfund Act, which could allow the EPA to clean up the area on Tyco’s dime. The agency granted the petition to further examine the site and has listed it as a Superfund site.

Three other bills by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers are seeking to reduce road salt usage, expand grant eligibility for replacing nitrate-contaminated wells and expand funding for farmer-led groups that evaluate land conservation practices and their impact on water quality.

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Alexander Tan

Alex Tan is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @dxvilsavocado.

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