New state recommendations for groundwater standards likely aren’t going to change how municipalities that have found PFAS in their water are going to operate in the short-term.
The levels, announced by state officials on Friday, would apply to two perfluorinated compounds found in firefighting foams and household products. But it will be at least a couple of years until they would go into effect under Wisconsin’s administrative rule making process.
In the meantime, officials in Madison and Marinette, where groundwater and drinking water tests have shown the presence of those chemicals, are planning to continue working with the Department of Natural Resources and others to safeguard residents.
“The recommendation doesn’t have an immediate impact on how we’re operating Madison’s water system, nor does it impact how we test Madison’s water,” Madison Water Utility spokeswoman Amy Barrilleaux wrote in an email.
The state Department of Health Services is calling for a combined standard of 20-parts-per-trillion between the two PFAS compounds, below the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level of 70 parts-per-trillion for the pair, known as PFOA and PFOS. In all, the agency recommended new standards for 27 different substances in order to protect public health.
The levels would only apply to groundwater — not drinking water — and would largely impact practices for site cleanups, agricultural use, bottled water standards and more. Those groundwater quality standards were last updated in 2010, before former GOP Gov. Scott Walker took office.
Meanwhile, DNR Division of Environment Management Administrator Darsi Foss told reporters last week the agency is considering drinking water standards as well. Still, she said states are also waiting on the EPA to announce whether it’ll be setting standards for PFAS in drinking water, which is expected to occur by the end of the year.
More than two-thirds of Wisconsin residents obtain their water from wells, according to DHS.
In Madison, where PFAS have been detected in 10 of its wells, city officials Friday afternoon announced their decision to continue operating without Well 15 on East Washington Avenue that has been contaminated with chemicals likely originating at Truax National Air Base.
The city stopped using the well in March, though the water utility had noted the PFAS levels — around 12 parts-per-trillion — aren’t considered a threat to human health. The level also “more than meets the recommended standard” from the state, the city noted in a news release, but officials said they’d work with health experts, the DNR and others “to determine next steps for the well.”
But public health experts have said residents don’t need to invest in filters or buy bottled water.
Perfluorinated compounds are used to manufacture firefighting foams, nonstick cookware, stain-resistant clothing and food packaging. They are typically found in groundwater near airports or landfills.
Implications for human health depend on the level and duration of exposure, but DHS toxicologist Dr. Sarah Yang said the biggest health impacts come from those who’ve seen a high level of exposure, such as individuals who have worked in facilities that manufacture those chemicals.
Marinette Wastewater Operations Manager Warren Howard said officials have been working to sample drinking water that enters the treatment plant, as well as wastewater, biosolids and wells across the city.
The contamination in the area has stemmed from Tyco Fire Products, which is owned by Johnson Controls and makes firefighting foam. The issue has also impacted nearby Peshtigo, and has led to the company installing wastewater treatment systems and distributing bottled water to residents.
Howard said he’s hopeful that once the residual PFAS are cleaned up, the city will hit the new limits the state is eyeing.
“We’re hoping that what we’re doing will be enough for us to meet those stricter standards,” he said.
Barrilleaux noted while Madison Water Utility has conducted testing, there aren’t currently any testing requirements for water utilities across the state, meaning the advanced sampling that’s occurred in the city has been “very unusual.”
The Water Utility previously tested four wells in 2012, though it did not detect PFAS compounds. A 2016 Environmental Protection Agency-directed test for PFAS in all the city’s wells also did not reveal any compounds. But new testing in 2017 using methods that were more sensitive to lower levels of the compounds found trace amounts of PFAS in two wells.
A DNR spokesman said utilities in La Crosse and Rhinelander have also conducted additional monitoring of their drinking water supplies. But that practice wouldn't be required statewide unless officials implement maximum contaminant levels for those substances, a move that would necessitate public water systems to test for them.
Going forward, Madison city and county representatives are considering launching a joint task force to combat PFAS. Ald. Marsha Rummel, who’s helping to spearhead the effort, wrote in an email she’s still working on the draft language and is urging other stakeholders to participate.
Abigail Becker contributed to this report.