Republican legislators have proposed a sweeping new plan to address PFAS pollution that would create grants for local governments, limit regulators' ability to delay projects on polluted property and mandate studies on how to treat contaminated water.
The bill would provide a mechanism for spending $125 million set aside by the Legislature's budget-writing committee last month to deal with the chemicals.
"The bill is a strong starting point," Rep. Jeff Mursau, the bill's chief Assembly sponsor, said Monday during a public hearing on the measure before the state Senate's natural resources committee. "We can find common ground to move this bill forward and protect our citizens and natural resources from these poisonous chemicals."
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that don't break down easily in nature. They're present in a range of products, including cookware, firefighting foam and stain-resistant clothing. They have been linked to low birth weight, cancer and liver disease, and have been shown to reduce vaccines' effectiveness.
Municipalities across Wisconsin are struggling with PFAS contamination in groundwater, including Marinette, Madison, Wausau and the town of Campbell on French Island. The waters of Green Bay also are contaminated.
Republicans have already passed bills limiting the use of firefighting foam that contains PFAS but have resisted doing more amid concerns that clean-up, filtration upgrades and well reconstruction would cost tens of millions of dollars.
The state Department of Natural Resources last year adopted limits on PFAS in surface and drinking water and is currently working on limits in groundwater.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' state budget proposal included $107 million for PFAS testing and mitigation. Republicans who control the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee last month scrapped that plan and replaced it with a $125 million trust fund for dealing with PFAS. The new bill would create avenues for spending it. Key provisions in the measure include:
- State Department of Natural Resources grants for local governments and public water utilities to test for PFAS; dispose of biosolids containing PFAs; and upgrade infrastructure and facilities. Owners of private polluted wells also could apply for grants.
- The DNR would be prohibited from requiring owners of abandoned industrial property from testing for PFAS unless the agency has information that the property is contaminated. It would also bar the DNR from preventing or delaying a development project based on PFAS contamination unless the pollution poses a risk to public health, the project could further degrade the environment, or if the entity looking to complete the project caused the original contamination through negligence.
- The DNR would need permission from private landowners to test their water for PFAS. The agency would be required to begin remedial actions at any contaminated site where the responsible party is unknown or can't pay for remediation.
- A public water utility wouldn't need permission from state regulators to upgrade facilities if the cost is less than $2 million or 50% of the utility's operating expenses for the previous year and the move is in response to PFAS contamination that poses a public health concern.
- The University of Wisconsin System and the DNR would have to collaborate on PFAS treatment studies.
No groups have registered in opposition to the bill, according to state Ethics Commission records. A host 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 registered in support.
Democrat Bob Wirch, a member of the Senate committee, said he was worried that a requirement for the grants to match up to 20% of the award would create burdens for small towns.
He also argued that the bill handcuffs the DNR, which would need more people to administer the grant programs. Evers' budget would have created 11 more agency positions to deal with PFAS, but Republicans erased that provision along with the rest of the governor's PFAS proposals.
"Putting the burden on the agency and not giving them enough staff people and then going after the agency for a bad job, we don't want to go through that scenario again," Wirch said.
Sen. Robert Cowles, one of the bill's chief Senate sponsors and chair of the Senate committee, countered that the DNR could ask the finance committee for additional positions at some point in the future.
Sara Walling, water and agriculture program director for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, praised the grant programs in the bill, saying they should help local governments with treatment upgrades. But she said the limitations on DNR testing are too onerous.
Lee Donahue, a town of Campbell supervisor, told the committee that the real solution is banning PFAS and that the DNR should be able to hold polluters responsible. She told a reporter that the bill focuses too much on large urban water systems and doesn't do enough to help towns like hers that rely solely on private wells for drinking water.
It was unclear when the Senate committee might vote on the bill. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn't respond to emails inquiring about its prospects.
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