After a heated debate, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Policy-Setting Board approved state regulation of chemicals said to be forever harmful in drinking water, albeit at a less protective standard than that offered by the agency.
The Natural Resources Council voted 6 to 1 to approve a drinking water standard of 70 parts per trillion for two of the most studied PFAS chemicals: PFOA and PFOS. Marcy West was the only dissenting vote in favor of the more restrictive DNR standard. The agency proposed a threshold of 20 parts per trillion as recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
The board-approved bylaw is consistent with the health board level of 70 parts per trillion issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016.
The chemicals have raised concerns among residents because they don’t break down easily in the environment.
Several studies of people living and working in areas with high levels of PFOA have has shown links to serious health effects which include an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease and fertility problems. Chemicals have also been linked to reduced response to vaccines.
The debate over the appropriate level of regulation for chemicals has occasionally sparked heated exchanges between council members and MNR Secretary Preston Cole.
Board members Terry Hilgenberg and Bill Bruins, current board chairman Greg Kazmierski and former chairman Dr. Fred Prehn questioned the 20 parts per trillion standard recommended by health officials and the analysis by the DNR of costs related to compliance with the proposed regulations.
Prehn said he believes 70 parts per trillion is a good compromise that would allow the agency to move forward with testing the public water supply for chemicals.
“It’s a good place to start. It’s based on science – the Obama EPA,” Prehn said.
Hilgenberg said he feels more comfortable with an EPA-level health advisory standard, citing distrust of state health officials based on their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you come to the ‘People’s Republic of Madison,’ I have to wear a mask, and that’s ridiculous. … I don’t have the trust of DHS,” Hilgenberg said.
Bruins said the cost of implementing the agency’s proposed standard would be “astronomical.” Kazmierski said the DNR’s economic review may be incomplete due to the small number of systems tested to date.
Council members Bill Smith and Sharon Adams voted for the settlement, but qualified their vote by saying they don’t believe the threshold goes far enough to protect public health.
“I don’t think that’s ambitious, but I also recognize that there will be a benefit in getting a rule passed today to kick off some of the sampling and data collection,” Smith said.
Adams added that the weakened standard does not appear to be a “position of leadership” that will benefit communities.
APE announcement late last year that recent data indicates that adverse health effects “may occur at much lower levels of chemical exposure” than previously known.
Scott Manley, executive vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, told the board Wednesday that the state’s largest business lobby would support a less restrictive drinking water standard.
“I think you have the power to set the standard at 70 parts per trillion,” Manley said. “I do not believe that DHS and department staff have borne the burden of deviating from this standard.”
Manley questioned the science used by health officials to arrive at their recommendation. He said the EPA looked at the same data when the federal agency issued a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. However, DHS groundwater toxicologist Dr. Sarah Yang told the council that state health officials based their recommendation on more recent research from 2019 that was published after the EPA developed his opinion.
Manley also accused the DNR of underestimating the costs of meeting the agency’s proposed standard in order to evade a law requiring legislative approval of regulations exceeding $10 million over a two-year period. He said compliance costs would run into the tens of millions of dollars every year.
The DNR’s proposed groundwater standard of 20 parts per trillion failed after a 3-3 vote with Hilgenberg abstaining.
Even so, the council has approved the agency’s surface water standard 8 parts per trillion for PFOS in all waters with limited exceptions. The DNR said this level is intended to protect the public from chemicals ingested through the consumption of fish. For PFOA, the DNR recommends a standard of 20 parts per trillion in waters considered to be public water supplies and 95 parts per trillion for all other surface waters.
Environmental groups in Wisconsin, community leaders and residents affected by PFAS had been pleading with the council to adopt the standards proposed by the DNR, as communities like Peshtigo, French Island, Eau Claire, Madison and more recently Wausau face chemical contamination in public and private wells.
“The action of the Natural Resources Council today to approve the amended surface water and drinking water standards is an incomplete but important step on the long road that we must all walk together to fix this mess,” said said Scott Laesar, water program manager for Clean Wisconsin in a statement. . ‘But by rejecting groundwater standards, the council has failed to protect the tens of thousands of rural Wisconsin families who get their water from private wells. The drinking water rule passed by the NRB today’ hui will only apply to municipal water systems.”
Community leaders in the towns of Campbell, Marinette and Peshtigo have pleaded with council to pass DNR standards, saying their residents have been unknowingly drinking polluted water for years.
Peshtigo City President Cindy Boyle became emotional as she urged the council to protect residents of the state, saying PFAS levels in her blood were five times higher than the national average.
“I’m not embarrassed. I’m exhausted. I’m pissed. I’m scared, but I’m relentless,” Boyle said. “I will not stop. Our community needs and deserves to be protected.”
She expressed concern that her community would not be able to hold Tyco Fire Products accountable without a standard for cleaning up PFAS pollution from its fire training center in Marinette. Residents have reached a $17.5 million settlement with the fire-fighting foam maker related to pollution at its facility last year.
Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg told the council that mothers were calling her office to ask if their infants would die if they drank the water after tests found PFAS in every well in the city.
“Public trust is shattered. People are confused by dueling notices, and municipalities can’t shoulder the burden of doing the right thing on their own,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg’s comments drew heated remarks from Prehn, who accused the town’s mayor of inciting hysteria among residents.
“It’s irresponsible because the bottom line is it’s a chemical forever, and you’re never going to take it all out,” Prehn said.
Prehn said no one disputes that PFAS is dangerous, saying officials disagree on what level is acceptable for public health. Rosenberg dismissed Prehn’s claims, saying she told residents not to panic.
Last fall, the DNR said regulators were tackling PFAS pollution at more than 50 pitches in 25 municipalities.
The standards still need to be approved by the Republican-controlled legislature. GOP lawmakers have already weakened PFAS regulations and stripped most of Governor Tony Evers’ funding proposals process PFAS from the budget.