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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin AG sues 18 companies over PFAS contamination

A PFAS warning sign.
C Boyle
A PFAS warning sign posted by Tyco/JCI in the Town of Peshtigo. This is within the area the company is taking responsibility for contamination.

Updated Thursday at 8:46 a.m. CDT

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to force nearly 20 companies that he alleges contaminated the environment with chemicals known as PFAS to reimburse the state for investigations and cleanup efforts.

The lawsuit, filed in Dane County circuit court, names 18 companies as defendants, including 3M Company, Tyco Fire Products LP, and BASF Corporation. The filing alleges the defendants knew or should have known that their products would have a dangerous impact on the public's health and environment.

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages as well as reimbursement for the costs of investigations, cleanup and remediation.

“To this day, the State continues to take necessary actions to protect its natural resources and its residents from harm caused by PFAS contamination,” the lawsuit states. “The State and its taxpayers will need to spend billions of dollars remediating the dangerous PFAS contamination caused by Defendants' wrongful, deceptive and tortious conduct.”

PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals were developed as coatings to protect consumer goods from stains, water and corrosion. Nonstick cookware, carpets, outdoor gear and food packaging are among items that contain the chemicals. They also are an ingredient in firefighting foams.

They're often described as "forever chemicals" because some don’t degrade naturally and are believed to be capable of lingering indefinitely in the environment. Research suggests that they may cause health problems in humans.

PFAS contamination is a widespread problem in Wisconsin. A host of communities, including Marinette, the town of Campbell on French Island, Madison and Wausau have discovered the chemicals in their water.

The state Department of Natural Resources’ policy board adopted limits on PFAS in drinking and surface water in February. The board refused to impose limits for groundwater, leaving the chemicals unregulated in wells.

Kaul, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit in Marinette County in March against Johnson Controls and Tyco Fire Products alleging their firefighting foam led to PFAS contamination in the area. That lawsuit is still pending.

A Tyco spokesperson says, “Took responsibility for its part in PFAS contamination in Wisconsin many years ago and has spent millions of dollars on a comprehensive clean-up program that is well ahead of any other effort in the state and likely the country.“

“My response is I don’t believe any of it," says Cindy Boyle, chairperson of the Town of Peshtigo. “... Because every single day Town of Peshtigo residents continue to not be provided permanent safe drinking water. In the meantime, those of us living in JCI’s quote-end quote study area continue to receive bottled water and filtration system and the extended site investigation area is provided bottled water by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

Tyco/JCI maintains it’s responsible for some, not all PFAS-contaminated wells in the region.

Boyle says, “That’s the catalyst to the initial lawsuit.”

Wisconsin’s business community has consistently supported regulatory oversight of PFAS substances. That’s according to Scott Manley with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

"[Wednesday's] lawsuit is little more than a political stunt that will benefit no one other than the California trial lawyers Josh Kaul and Tony Evers hired to sue Wisconsin businesses. It sends a chilling message to manufacturers and their middle-class workers that Gov. Evers and Attorney General Kaul are suing businesses simply for making a lawful product," he says.

The new filing comes as Kaul faces what could be a bruising reelection bid this fall. Three Republicans — Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, former state Rep. Adam Jarchow and attorney Karen Mueller — are looking to take his job. The GOP primary is Aug. 9 and the general election is Nov. 8.

After a campaign appearance Wednesday afternoon in Grafton, Gov. Tony Evers said responsible companies must be
held financially responsible. “You think about all the money that’s going to be going into testing and mitigating, drilling new wells or bringing water, it’s going to be an expensive proposition. If we just say, ‘Well, we don’t want to sue because Johnson Controls is one of the defendants,’ well, OK, who’s going to pay for it?," he said.

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