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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin Takes Another Step To Drive Down PFAS Contamination

Susan Bence
PFAS, a group of chemicals that can contaminate groundwater, were detected in this stream that runs between Marinette's high school and sports fields.

A family of man-made chemicals that can contaminate water, called PFAS, has been front and center in the news, across the United States and in Wisconsin.

On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Legislature said yes to a first step in limiting the use of the most visible source of PFAS contamination – firefighting foams. Then on Wednesday, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board took up a proposal to regulate PFAS and other chemicals that can contaminate groundwater.

Jim Zellmer, deputy administrator in the Department of Natural Resources, set the stage for the discussion: "This will include 16 new substances, including 11 pesticides, two metals, one bacteria and two PFAS – specifically the PFOA and PFOS."

READ: Wisconsin Lawmakers Pass Bill Restricting Use Of Firefighting Foam Containing PFAS

Although the PFAS family of chemicals numbers in the thousands, Zellmer says two types — PFOA and PFOS — are the most studied, and therefore most ready to be regulated. Zellmer says the DNR is already investigating more than 30 sites around the state contaminated with PFAS.

“The main sources include the firefighting foam manufacturing [and] testing up in the Marinette area; military installations — Camp Douglas, Fort McCoy, Truax Field and Mitchell Field; airports — we have a couple municipal wells that have been impacted in Rhinelander and La Crosse,” Zellmer continues, “Nonstick cookware manufacturers — we have the former Mirro facility in Manitowoc and the disposal locations,” he says.

The DNR is also investigating major petroleum fires. “We have the Husky refinery fire that was in Superior. Also, we just recently the American Transmission Company transformer fire here in Madison,” Zellmer says.

READ: PFAS Concern Remains High In Marinette

Credit Michigan Department Of Environment, Great Lakes, And Energy
This graphic shows the PFAS cycle.

Members of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board didn't question the gravity PFAS pose to Wisconsin residents. But some, including Greg Kazmierski, wonder if the DNR can keep up with the magnitude of the problem.

“If we set a standard, what tools do we have to try to reduce PFAS. I don’t want to set a standard if we don’t know what the result of that standard will be,” Kazmierski says.

The board voted to allow the DNR to draft the groundwater regulatory standard and approved more measures, with a few nuances exclusively for PFAS detected in drinking water.

“These regulations only apply to public water systems not to private wells,” Zellmer explains.

And there's another to regulate PFAS found in surface water such as rivers and streams. Zellmer says that regulation will require the DNR to jump through an extra regulatory hoop.

“The uniqueness about the surface water quality standards is: If the [natural resources] board approves us to proceed with rulemaking and we work through it and get all of the state apprrovals, that has to be submitted to EPA. They have the final say,” Zellmer says.

READ:Scientists Dig Into Hard Questions About PFAS

The DNR has already heard from people – from environmental organizations to industry – through comments and a public hearing. Opinions range from wanting Wisconsin to hold off setting rules until the federal EPA comes up with standards, to wishing the DNR would fold a range of PFAS into the regulation.

Natural Resources board member Terry Hilgenberg of Shawano worries about the financial burden communities might face.

“In our part of the world, we have a lot of municipal sewerage operations in small communities, which this can have a huge impact on. What my concern is, is how they’re going to pay for this,” Hilgenberg says.

Board chair Frederick Prehn anticipates these first two PFAS regulations will be followed by many more.

“It’s going to go on forever, you guys. The first-gen chain of carbon fluorides that they’re using in Teflon today may prove to be something they gotta worry about 10 years from now. So, this is not going to stop it. As these chemicals come out, it's gonna be more and more that we know about it, and more that we wanna do about it," Prehn says.

For now, the DNR has a mountain of work handling its first two PFAS – PFOA and PFOS. The agency has 30 months to complete the rule drafting process that will include public hearing and analyzing the cost of enacting the regulations.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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