Wisconsin PFAS standards for drinking, surface water adopted

The Department of Natural Resources policy board adopted Wisconsin's first limits on so-called "forever chemicals" in drinking and surface water Wednesday, handing Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' administration a partial victory as he heads toward November's election.

Evers has been pushing to curtail PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, pollution since he took office in 2019, going so far as to declare his first year in office "the year of clean drinking water." The DNR board didn't hand Evers a complete win, however; members killed proposed limits on PFAS in groundwater citing compliance costs in the tens of millions of dollars. That means no limits on PFAS for hundreds of thousands of wells across Wisconsin. And the restrictions the board did impose still need the approval of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

PFAS are man-made chemicals that don't break down in nature. They're found in a wide range of products, from cookware to firefighting foam. Some research has linked the chemicals to health problems in humans and animals. Several Wisconsin communities are grappling with PFAS contamination in their groundwater, including Marinette, Madison, Wausau, and the towns of Peshtigo and Campbell.

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The DNR under Evers' direction began working on PFAS standards for water sources in September 2019. The agency had 30 months to come up with a plan, and with its window closing on March 3, department officials presented the board with a three-pronged regulatory package on Wednesday.

The first part addresses PFAS in wells by setting a groundwater standard of 2 parts per trillion in groundwater on two PFAS compounds, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

Wisconsin DNR Department of Natural Resources

The second prong would set a drinking water standard of 20 ppt. The third would establish an 8 ppt limit for PFOS, and a 20 ppt for PFOA in surface waters used as a public drinking source and a 95 ppt limit for other surface waters. Polluters would have seven years to implement a plan to reduce contamination.

Cindy Boyle, chairwoman of the town of Peshtigo, choked back tears as she begged the board to take action via Zoom on Wednesday. She said a third of the private wells in her town are contaminated. Residents won a $17.5 million settlement with Tyco Fire Products and two other companies in January 2021 over PFAS contamination stemming from the use of firefighting foam.

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"I’m exhausted, I’m pissed off and I’m scared," Boyle said. "Our community needs and deserves protection. We need you to set standards. Do your part, please. We go every single day continuing to drink poison."

Opponents, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group, have balked at the regulations' price tag. DNR fiscal estimates project that compliance options, ranging from drilling new wells to installing treatment systems, could cost industries such as wastewater plants and paper mills millions of dollars.

WMC lobbyist Scott Manley urged the board to let the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set PFAS standards. The EPA has recommended a 70 ppt standard and is expected to issue its final standards in 2023. DNR officials have said they don't want to wait because it could take years to pass regulations implementing those standards in the state.

Wisconsin Capitol in Madison

The board amended the drinking water limit from 20 ppt to 70 ppt to mirror the EPA's recommendation. Board member Bill Smith said the limit is hardly visionary but it will start an industry conversation and lead to more sampling that will give the DNR a better sense of the extent of contamination around the state. The board passed the amended language on a 6-1 vote.

The board passed the surface water standards on a unanimous vote after DNR Water Quality Bureau Director Adrian Stocks said industry stakeholders have said they can live with the seven-year time frame for improvements.

But it scrapped the groundwater limits on a 3-3 vote. Board member Fred Prehn said he didn't believe the DNR's cost estimates. Terry Hilgenberg said two well-drillers told him that a new well costs as much as three times what the DNR estimates.

The regulations the board approved are subject to the approval of the Legislature's Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules. Asked in an email about the standards' prospects, Mike Mikalsen, an aide to committee co-chairman Sen. Steve Nass, said only that the changes the board made Wednesday improve their chances. He didn't elaborate.

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