‘Back to the Dark Ages’ for Water Protection as a Judge Kills DNR Enforcement of PFAS

Culligan Delivery

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 due to contamination from PFAS, a type of chemical found in firefighting foam.

By Pat Kreitlow
April 12, 2022

State’s big business lobby, WMC, successfully argues the Legislature has to list the chemicals and write the rules—even though it might never do that.

The same Waukesha County judge who earlier this year eliminated absentee ballot drop boxes has made another ruling with substantial statewide impact—this time bringing some pollution cleanup to a halt, perhaps for years, depending on whether and how politicians want to write the rules.

Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren ruled Tuesday that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) cannot regulate an entire class of industrial chemicals being found more frequently in Wisconsin groundwater because the Legislature hasn’t defined them and spelled out rules the DNR must follow in enforcement and cleanup.

The Legislature—controlled by Republicans—has done little to nothing about the “forever chemicals” known by the acronym PFAS, shown to cause health problems in humans long after they were originally used to make nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, and other products. The DNR currently lists nearly 90 sites across Wisconsin with PFAS contamination.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), a powerhouse in Capitol lobbying and political ad spending, brought the lawsuit in February of last year along with a dry cleaner in Oconomowoc. They say the company should not be required to clean up any chemicals not specifically regulated by the DNR for environmental remediation, according to a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Bohren’s decision means the DNR may have to wait years for legislators to define the chemicals and write the relevant rules. Meanwhile, the conservative majority on the state’s Natural Resources Board refused this past February to impose PFAS standards for groundwater, forcing DNR staff to restart a process that had already been going on for three years.

WATCH: French Island residents face years of having drinkable water trucked in due to PFAS contamination.

The conservative majority exists because Fred Prehn, an appointee of former Gov. Scott Walker, refuses to give up his seat on the board even though his term expired last year. State Senate Republicans are sitting on Gov. Tony Evers’ nomination of his replacement.

When the WMC lawsuit was originally filed, Dr. Beth Neary, a pediatrician and co-president of the Wisconsin Environmental Health Network told UpNorthNews that if WMC won, “Wisconsin would be forced back into the dark ages of environmental protection.”There’s a similarity between Bohren’s rulings on pollution cleanup and ballot drop boxes. As with the DNR, Bohren said the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) cannot act without more input from the Legislature—even if it is a Legislature that has tried to impede WEC activity for the past two years and even threaten its continued existence.


  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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