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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

As PFAS cases persist, Wisconsin takes baby steps toward regulating the forever chemicals

The Town of Campbell on French Island is one of the communities hit with PFAS contamination. In March of 2020, volunteers distributed bottled water to town residents.
Town of Campbell supervisor Lee Donahue
The Town of Campbell on French Island is one of the communities hit with PFAS contamination. In March of 2020, volunteers distributed bottled water to town residents.

Manufactured chemicals called PFAS can be found in many products, from stain-resistant carpeting to fast food packaging.

Wisconsin is now taking steps to regulate two of the estimated 9,000-plus varieties of PFAS.

Some states, including neighboring Michigan and Minnesota, have already begun regulating PFAS that are impacting water, land and those living in or on it.

The EPA issued a limit of 70 parts per trillion at the federal level, but it’s a health advisory, not a mandate. And while the agency pledges to implement a comprehensive PFAS plan, the process could drag on for years.

In Wisconsin, after months of review, the Department of Health Services proposed standards for two of the most studied PFAS chemicals: PFOA and PFOS.

The regulations would establish a combined 20 parts per trillion standard and apply to the ground, surface and drinking water.

Last month, the Department of Natural Resources invited public comment at two of three scheduled virtual hearings.

Every person who testified called the proposed standards an important first step toward testing and mitigating the multitude of PFAS chemicals.

Physician Susan Davidson with the Wisconsin Environmental Health Network said there’s no time to waste. She said children are being born pre-polluted.

“The perspective of the fetus and young child in this discussion is extremely important because we have come to understand that many adult diseases including multiple types of cancer, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes can be traced to influences during fetal life,” Davidson said. "The fetus is exposed to every environmental toxin the mother is exposed to.“

Since 2019, the DNR has issued seventeen PFAS-related fish consumption advisories.

The agency reported that Starkweather Creek in Madison had the highest concentration of PFOA and PFOS among samples it gathered.

Starkweather Creek in Madison was found to have the highest PFOA and PFOS levels of all the waterways tested by the Wisconsin DNR.
Friends of Starkweather Creek
Starkweather Creek in Madison was found to have the highest PFOA and PFOS levels of all the waterways tested by the Wisconsin DNR.

According to the DNR, “there are known discharges of PFAS compounds to soil, surface water, stormwater and groundwater on the Dane County airport property where PFAS containing firefighting foam products were used.”

Lance Green has been sampling Starkweather Creek’s west branch as a volunteer for eight years.

“I have a lot of concern for my own exposures. The creek has high levels of PFAS in the water, in the sediment, in the fish, and the fish have been found in the Yahara chain of lakes from Monona down,” Green said.

Heather DeLuka heads the airport neighborhood association and serves on the Eau Claire county board.

“Recently, Eau Claire found PFAS — high levels. We have had to close six of our 12 wells. My concerns in my neck of the woods is we’re probably looking at drilling new wells or paying for a new treatment plant or something else, but hopefully, it’s not into the groundwater or in the aquifer and traveling from well to well,” DeLuka said.

Eau Claire’s PFAS issues are thought to be linked to firefighting foam used at the nearby airport. So too, the Town of Campbell’s.

It is located on a four square-mile island beyond La Crosse in the Mississippi River.

PFAS contaminated wells were discovered in the Town of Campbell in 2021.
Town of Campbell supervisor Lee Donahue
Private well testing between November 2020 and April 2021 revealed PFAS contamination throughout the Town of Campbell.

Town of Campbell board supervisor Lee Donahue said she’s speaking up for the health of her fellow residents.

“Last year, we discovered that 97% of 555 wells tested positive for PFAS contamination…our water is considered not only unsafe to drink but unsafe to use to water any edible garden plant,” Donahue said.

Two decades ago, a plane crashed two blocks from Donahue’s home. She said well testing reveals how PFAS-containing firefighting foam used to extinguish the blaze has impacted groundwater and private wells in its path.

“Well testing in that area reveals contamination upwards of 100 parts per trillion, and if you go a short half mile away, the residents have more than 1,000 parts per trillion contaminated water,” she said.

Donahue believes Wisconsin’s collective environmental responsibility is to set enforceable PFAS standards, "to protect not only every single resident but also commercial industry. I don’t think that those are two separate things. I think they can go hand in hand."

DNR secretary Preston Cole anticipated pushback to the PFAS measures as he spoke to Natural Resources Board members at their December meeting.

"You're going to get calls from industry officials, and you're going to get calls from mayors and village presidents that are already upside down as it relates to clean water and PFAS. You're going to get that phone call," Cole said. "So to prepare yourselves for that, we're going to give you all the information you need to answer those questions."

January 6 marks the final public hearing on the proposed PFAS rules.

DNR staff will ask for the Natural Resources Board's blessing at its February meeting as the proposal will be scrutinized by the state Legislature.

Advocates hope lawmakers consider the cost of doing nothing, which impacted the public's health, property values and Wisconsin's nature-based economy.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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