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Groundwater council calls for action on PFAS; nitrate remains top contaminant

Groundwater council calls for action on PFAS; nitrate remains top contaminant


Wisconsin’s groundwater advisory board is calling for action to address hazardous chemicals known as PFAS and other contaminants found in a growing number of drinking water supplies.

The Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council’s annual report to the Legislature recommends establishing groundwater enforcement standards and continuing to identify sources of the largely indestructible compounds, which have been linked to cancer and other illnesses.

Testing in recent years has revealed PFAS compounds in public water systems in La Crosse, West Bend, Rhinelander, Marinette and Madison, where they were recently found at some level in every well. PFAS have also turned up in groundwater near military bases, including Madison’s Truax Field, and industrial sites in Marinette, Manitowoc and Chilton.

Used for decades in firefighting foam and consumer products, PFAS are likely present at fire stations, factories and landfills and have been found in sewage. According to the report, there are concerns that PFAS are leaching into groundwater when sludge from sewage treatment plants is used as farm fertilizer.

While past reports have addressed PFAS, this is the first to call for direct action.

“It’s been in there in the past as part of emerging contaminants,” said Bruce Rheineck, groundwater section chief for the Department of Natural Resources. “The feeling was PFAS have definitely emerged. They are an issue.”

The council recommends the state implement groundwater enforcement standards for two compounds — PFOA and PFOS — as advised by the Department of Health Services, which last year recommended one of the nation’s most restrictive standards.

The Department of Natural Resources last year began a 2.5-year process to develop PFAS standards for ground, surface and drinking water.

The report also suggests developing benchmarks for PFAS in surface water, sludge and other materials to protect groundwater.

In addition to PFAS, the report warns of viruses and harmful bacteria that can come from human and animal waste. Coliform bacteria, an indicator of other pathogens, is present in about 17% of private wells, while studies have shown viruses in 4% to 12% of private wells as well as municipal wells in La Crosse and Madison.

Figuring out where and when pathogens present a threat to human health is “fundamental to improving drinking water quality,” according to the DNR.

“There are just hundreds of thousands of life forms in the world and you can never test for all of them. Only some percentage are harmful,” Rheineck said. “There’s a lot to learn.”

Along with the new recommendations, the report highlights the ongoing need to protect groundwater from nitrate and other agricultural contaminants.

Nitrate, associated with birth defects, thyroid disease and some cancers, is present at dangerous levels in more than 200 public water supplies. The state’s most common water contaminant, it is spreading in extent and severity, according to the report.

Among other things, the report recommends identifying sensitive areas where elevated nitrate is present, making information available through an online mapping tool and working with farmers to encourage practices that limit how much nitrogen ends up in groundwater.

Formed in 1984 to coordinate the exchange of information and action on groundwater, the Groundwater Coordinating Council brings together staff from more than 10 agencies, institutions and organizations to work on research, monitoring, education and planning.

The council is required by law to provide an annual report on groundwater quality, problems and management. Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water for nearly three-fourths of Wisconsin residents and is used in agriculture and food production. It also feeds cold-water streams and lakes.

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