Local lawmakers back separate bills to address contamination
By Kevin Boneske
HOWARD – Gov. Tony Evers and other state officials appeared Thursday, May 23, at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Northeast Headquarters for a press conference in support of legislation to deal with the issue of contamination from per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
PFAS are contained in some household products and have been linked to drinking water contamination from firefighting foam in Marinette County and Madison.
Evers and two Democratic lawmakers from Green Bay, Sen. Dave Hansen and Rep. Staush Gruszynski, are backing legislation known as the Chemical Level Enforcement and Remediation Act, or CLEAR Act, which would:
• Require the DNR to establish, by rule, acceptable levels and standards, monitoring requirements and response actions for PFAS chemicals that are determined to be harmful to human health.
• Have the DNR establish standards for drinking water, groundwater, surface water, air, solid waste, beds of navigable waters and soil and sediment.
• Require an interim standard based on recommendations from the Department of Health Services for chemicals included in the PFAS group of substances.
Evers, who has declared 2019 the year of clean drinking water in Wisconsin, said it is unacceptable when clean, safe drinking water is not available to all state residents.
“Sadly, some substances used in the manufacturing processes are polluting the earth and making people sick,” Evers said. “Some of those issues and those contaminants include legacy contaminants, such as PFAS, which can lead to a number of health issues from liver damage to birth defects.”
Evers said he hopes the legislation, for which lawmakers are now seeking co-sponsors, will pass as soon as possible.
DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole said the legislation would return Wisconsin as the “environmental leader of environmental protection.”
“People shouldn’t have to worry about what’s coming out of their tap,” Cole said. “They shouldn’t have to worry about the air that they breathe, and I’m proud to support this bill and the comprehensive bill that is before us.”
Cole said the Evers administration is “just beginning to process and to determine the extent of PFAS contamination” in Wisconsin.
“Without the state systematically testing for PFAS, we’re going to have communities that don’t know what’s in their drinking water,” Cole said. “They look to us to lead that issue for safe drinking water.”
Cole said those responsible for causing drinking water contamination with PFAS would be held accountable under the legislation.
Gruszynski said the state needs to set standards for PFAS.
“The federal government punted on it,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re taking action on it as a state… Once we set those standards, then we’re going to work with the DNR to make sure that we have the regulatory accountability that we need to keep people’s drinking water safe.”
Hansen said he favors preventing PFAS contamination as well as cleaning up areas already contaminated.
“We’ve got to make it work, and we’ve got to work on cleaning up our areas,” Hansen said. “And there’s a lot of hot spots, I believe, in this state that we’ll have to work on.”
Clean Wisconsin also voiced support for the bill at the press conference.
Other PFAS legislation
Another bill related to restrictions on firefighting foam containing PFAS was also introduced last week by two local Republican state lawmakers, Sen. Rob Cowles of Green Bay and Rep. John Nygren of Marinette, neither of whom were at the press conference with the governor.
Under their proposed legislation, the use of Class B firefighting foam containing intentionally-added PFAS would be prohibited, but with two exceptions.
The prohibition would not apply to first responders using the foam in emergency firefighting or fire prevention operations.
The foam could also be used for training purposes, but only if appropriate containment, treatment and disposal methods, as determined by the DNR, are in place.
Cowles said the foams are “an extremely effective tool for fighting flammable liquid fires,” but also contain PFAS.
“This bill strikes a balance in reducing the risks to human health and negative environmental footprint PFAS chemicals pose, while not hamstringing first responders who need to use firefighting foams in real emergencies,” Cowles said.
Cowles, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, on which Hansen is also a member, said he isn’t against the bill backed by Democratic lawmakers and would hope that measure is referred to the committee.
He said the best way to get something done in the State Legislature is to have a bill be authored by members of both parties.
Nygren, who represents the area in Marinette County where PFAS contamination from firefighting foam has been detected, said dealing with PFAS shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
“It is important we work to reduce possible contamination sources in our state, and this bill is a strong step in the right direction,” he said.
Nygren, who co-chairs the State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance, said he also plans to call for including a provision in the state budget to study PFAS contaminants.