Starting All Over: Conservatives Close the Spigot on Groundwater Standards for ‘Forever Chemicals’

By JT Cestkowski
March 14, 2022

A Natural Resources Board hostile to addressing PFAS contamination forces the rules process to start all over again, wasting three years of work.

The failure of the state’s Natural Resources Board (NRB) to set a clean groundwater standard for a certain group of industrial chemicals means it will be years before peace of mind is brought to the 1.6 million people in Wisconsin whose primary source of drinking water is a private well.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are man made chemicals used for their stain- and water-resistant qualities in products such as nonstick cookware, clothing, packaging, and firefighting foam. Commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t readily break down in the environment or the human body, PFAS have been found in more than 50 Wisconsin communities. They have been linked to numerous health problems, such as kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight, and problems with immune and reproductive systems. 

Last month the NRB, which helps set policy for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), approved a new regulation that will require every municipal water system to be tested for PFAS. But the board failed to pass a similar rule that would have set limits for the amount of PFAS acceptable in groundwater which is relied upon for private wells. And because the vote came at the end of a three-year rulemaking limit set up by Republican legislators, the process must begin from scratch.

On French Island in the town of Campbell, outside La Crosse, bottled water is regularly trucked in for households since their wells are no longer safe.

Town of Campbell Supervisor Lee Donahue lobbied hard for the NRB to pass the regulations, and was deflated by the loss. “We lost three years, and we lost the investment of all those Wisconsin taxpayers. And the only way to get groundwater backup to the NRB is to start the process all over again,” she said.

The NRB refused requests from DNR staff and others to embrace a recommended safety standard of 20 parts per trillion (ppt) for drinking water from municipal systems, voting instead for a level of 70 ppt.

Some homes on French Island draw from groundwater that is contaminated with levels of PFAS over 1,000 parts per trillion. 

Donahue said she will not stop fighting for her community and the cause of safe drinking water in Wisconsin. Environmental activists told UpNorthNews that the NRB decision was not a complete loss as many communities will finally learn that they have a PFAS problem and be able to start fixing it due to the new testing requirement. However, Republicans in the Legislature could still choose to water down the regulations the way they did with similar PFAS rules last year. 

The NRB continues to have a conservative majority because one member appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker refuses to step down even though his term ended last year. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard arguments last week about whether to remove Fred Prehn, a Wausau dentist whose term ended on May 1, 2021. Gov. Tony Evers appointed Sandra Naas to replace him. But state Senate Republicans, encouraged by the state’s big business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, have refused to take action to confirm her. Prehn has argued that a 1964 state Supreme Court decision allows him to stay in place until the Senate has confirmed a successor.


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