Republican lawmakers have proposed a sweeping new plan to tackle PFAS pollution that would create grants for local governments, limit regulators’ ability to delay projects on polluted property, and mandate studies on contaminated water treatment.
The bill would provide a mechanism for spending $125 million that the Legislature’s Budget Committee allocated last month to deal with the chemicals.
“The bill is a good place to start,” Rep. Jeff Mursau, the bill’s lead sponsor in House, said Monday during a public hearing on the measure before the Senate Natural Resources Committee. “We can find common ground to move this bill forward and protect our citizens and natural resources from these toxic chemicals.”
Wisconsin Conservatives vote to allocate $125 million to fight PFAS pollution
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that do not readily degrade in nature. They are found in a range of products including cookware, fire-fighting foam and stain-resistant clothing. They are linked to low birth weight, cancer and liver disease and have been shown to reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
Communities across Wisconsin are struggling with PFAS contamination in groundwater, including Marinette, Madison, Wausau and the French Island town of Campbell. The waters of Green Bay are also contaminated.
Republicans have already passed bills restricting the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS but are refusing to do more, fearing it would cost tens of millions of dollars to clean up, filter upgrades and rebuild wells.
The state Department of Natural Resources approved limits for PFAS in surface and drinking water last year and is currently working on limits in groundwater.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ state budget proposal earmarked $107 million for PFAS testing and mitigation. Republicans, who control the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, scrapped that plan last month and replaced it with a $125 million trust fund to deal with PFAS. The new bill would create opportunities for spending. Key provisions of the measure include:
- The State Department of Natural Resources provides grants to local governments and public water companies for testing for PFAS; Discard biosolids containing PFAs; and improvement of infrastructure and facilities. Owners of private polluted wells could also apply for grants.
- The DNR would be prohibited from requiring owners of abandoned commercial property to be tested for PFAS unless the agency has information that the property is contaminated. It would also prohibit the DNR from preventing or delaying a development project due to PFAS contamination unless the contamination poses a risk to public health, the project could further harm the environment, or the company completing the project would like to have negligently caused the original contamination.
- The DNR would need permission from private landowners to test their water for PFAS. The agency would be required to initiate remediation at any contaminated site where the responsible party is unknown or unable to pay for remediation.
- A public water utility does not need approval from state regulatory agencies to upgrade facilities if the cost is less than $2 million or 50% of the utility’s operating costs for the previous year and the move is in response to PFAS contamination affecting a poses a public health problem.
- The University of Wisconsin System and the DNR would need to collaborate on trials of PFAS treatment.
According to the records of the state ethics committee, no groups have opposed the bill. A large number of organizations have registered as neutral. The Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools are the only groups that have signed up to provide support.
Senate committee member Bob Wirch, Democrat, said he was concerned that requiring grants to be up to 20% of funding would put pressure on small towns.
He also argued that the bill would put handcuffs on the DNR, which would require more people to administer the grant programs. Evers’ budget would have created 11 more positions in the agency to deal with PFAS, but Republicans scraped that provision along with the governor’s other PFAS proposals.
“We don’t want to burden the agency again, don’t provide it with enough staff and then take action against the agency because of bad work,” said Wirch.
WISCONSIN lawmaker says PFAS pollution in state’s water appears “insurmountable.”
Senator Robert Cowles, a major sponsor of the bill and chair of the Senate committee, countered that the DNR may ask the Finance Committee for additional positions at some point in the future.
Sara Welling, program director for water and agriculture at environmental organization Clean Wisconsin, praised the grant programs in the bill and said they should help local governments modernize treatment. But she said the restrictions on DNR testing were too onerous.
Lee Donahue, a City Manager for the City of Campbell, told the committee that the real solution is to ban PFAS and that the DNR should be able to hold polluters accountable. She told a reporter that the bill focuses too much on large urban water systems and isn’t doing enough to help cities like hers, which rely solely on private wells for drinking water.
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It was unclear when the Senate committee would vote on the bill. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and House Speaker Robin Vos did not respond to emails inquiring about the prospect.
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