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As EPA limits PFAS in drinking water, Wisconsin lawmakers remain unable to agree how to address forever chemicals

Groups like Wisconsin Conservation Voters say warning signs aren't enough to protect people impacted PFAS contamination.
Steve Dahlgren Dahlgren Photo
Groups like Wisconsin Conservation Voters say warning signs aren't enough to protect people impacted by PFAS contamination.

The federal government has taken a significant step in regulating PFAS, the so-called forever chemicals in drinking water. They were used for decades in everything from cookware to firefighting foam. This week, the EPA established strict limits on several of the most studied and discussed chemicals.

At the same time, the federal agency stated that “there is no level of exposure to these contaminants without risk of health impacts, including certain cancers.” Meanwhile in Wisconsin, lawmakers continued to squabble over the best way to tackle PFAS — leaving millions of remediation dollars in limbo.

PFAS are a group of chemicals that don’t easily break down, which means they can bioaccumulate in living things, including humans. The manufactured chemicals have been linked to a concerning list of health problems, from low birth weights to cancer and liver disease.

There’s a growing list of Wisconsin communities saddled with PFAS-contaminated groundwater. The list includes Peshtigo, Wausau and the town of Campbell on French Island.

READ: Town in northern Wisconsin grappling with highest PFAS contamination levels in state

Waters within the bay of Green Bay have also been impacted. Green Bay state Sen. Eric Wimberger coauthored a bill that he says offered a path for grants to pay for PFAS clean up. It called for awarding grants to municipalities, private landowners and waste disposal facilities to test for PFAS in water treatment plants and wells.

Wimberger says landowners whose property became contaminated through no fault of their own would have been eligible. He says the bill would prevent people from being driven into financial ruin because they find themselves in the path of a pollution plume.

Wimberger pointed to the bill’s many grant pathways. “For instance, a lot of the PFAS would get into the biosolids spread on farms because the leachate from the landfills was being mixed with the other biosolids at the municipal treatment plant. So the SB 312 had given grant money to create sort of mini treatment facilities at the landfill, so all of that leachate never got into the system,” Wimberger says.

But this week, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the bill, saying it wasn’t good enough. Evers argued the bill would have limited the DNR’s power to enforce PFAS cleanups. And he said the proposal had loopholes that could have let “those who cause PFAS contamination off the hook for remediating their contamination.”

A number of environmental groups urged Gov. Evers to veto the bill. Wisconsin Conservation Voters was among them.

State Senator Eric Wimberger & Peter Burress with Wisconsin Conservation Voters share their thoughts on Gov. Ever's veto.

Peter Burress is the organization's government affairs manager. “Under Senate Bill 312, one of our major concerns was that there was a process through which literally anybody could be considered an innocent landowner and then, in qualifying as an innocent landowner, would be exempt from the DNR’s enforcement authority. That is exactly what we call a loophole for polluters,” Burress says.

He says it is critical that Wisconsin move forward with other PFAS-related measures. He says that should start with groundwater regulations to protect the multitude of Wisconsinites who rely on private wells for their drinking water. Meanwhile, Burress says a measure already approved in last year’s state budget should be activated immediately.

“Last summer, over nine months ago, bipartisan action led to $125 million being set aside for action on PFAS, and that funding is still sitting there because the Joint Finance Committee has not released it…We need to get the funding out the door,” Burress says.

That step seems unlikely. Sen. Wimberger, the vetoed bill’s sponsor, accuses Gov. Evers of wanting to create a “slush fund” for the DNR rather than going through the program.

That’s despite the fact that Evers sent the Joint Finance Committee a proposal in late February. Evers has taken the unusual step of calling for a meeting next week to try to convince the GOP-controlled committee to release the PFAS funds.

Republicans show no sign of action.

WUWM's Susan Bence spoke to State Sen. Eric Wimberger about the PFAs regulation legislation. You can listen to the full interview below in addition to an extended conversation with Peter Burress who shares why he supports Governor Evers’ veto of Wimberger’s PFAs bill.

State Sen. Eric Wimberger and Peter Burress with Wisconsin Conservation Voters.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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