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Natural Resources Board kills PFAS groundwater regulations, weakens drinking water standard

From the PFAS: A selection of State Journal coverage of forever chemicals series
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Peshtigo town Chair Cindy Boyle calls on Natural Resources Board to approve pollution standards for PFAS in groundwater

Conservatives on Wisconsin’s natural resources board have approved weakened regulations for toxic "forever chemicals" in public water supplies but killed a rule to limit them in groundwater, which one in four residents with private wells rely on for drinking water.

In the face of widespread public support, the Natural Resources Board voted 3-3 with one abstention Wednesday to reject rules to limit certain fluorinated compounds known as PFAS in groundwater.

The board later voted to approve weakened PFAS standards for public drinking water, which apply to municipal systems, trailer parks, schools and other institutions where people get drinking water on a regular basis. 

The vote scraps two and a half years of work by the Department of Natural Resources to set groundwater standards for contaminants found in wells across the state, including in Madison.

The synthetic chemicals, which do not break down naturally, have been linked to health problems including low birth weight, cancer and liver disease, and have been shown to make vaccines less effective.

After heated debate, members appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker sided with industry lobbyists who questioned the science put forward by state health officials and the DNR’s economic impact estimates.

William Bruins


“There’s been a lot of negativity toward chemicals -- they’re bad -- spoken here today,” said Bill Bruins. “If we pass this rule it’s like biting the hand that feeds us.”

Board member Fred Prehn said he didn’t believe the proposed groundwater rule met statutory requirements.

“I’m a rules follower,” said Prehn, who has refused to step down since his term ended in May as Republicans in the Senate have denied a confirmation hearing for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ nominee to replace him.

Terry Hilgenberg, who abstained without explanation, said he didn't trust the Department of Health Services scientists.

“I don’t want to be COVIDed here,” Hilgenberg said, citing variances in local public health guidelines. “When I come to the ‘People’s Republic of Madison,’ I have to wear a mask, and it's ridiculous. ... I don’t have trust in the DHS.”

DNR Secretary Preston Cole and Natural Resources Board member Terry Hilgenberg clash over the DNR's cost estimates for PFAS regulations

Hilgenberg also said he didn’t believe the DNR’s economic impact statement based on a conversation with a northeast Wisconsin well digger.

That prompted a rebuke from DNR Secretary Preston Cole.

“You’re not going to take us on and say somehow you believe it to be true because you talked to a guy,” Cole said. “Listen to yourself.”

DNR staff later pointed out that Hilgenberg had conflated the cost estimates for private and municipal wells.

Preston Cole


Chair Greg Kazmierski tried unsuccessfully to amend the proposed groundwater standard to the Environmental Protection Agency’s existing health advisory, which is 3.5 times higher than the DNR’s proposed standard.

The board later voted 6-1 to reject the DNR’s proposed 20 parts per trillion standard for public drinking water supplies and instead adopt the EPA’s 70 ppt guideline. Recently released EPA documents show negative health effects can occur at less than 1 ppt. 

Environmental advocates accused the board of playing political games and ignoring science.

“As a result, more Wisconsinites will be unnecessarily exposed to toxic chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, impairment of the immune system and other diseases,” said Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates.

That rule will now require approval by Evers and the GOP-controlled Legislature's rules committee.

Mike Mikalsen, an aide to committee co-chair Sen. Steve Nass, said Nass still needs to review the final versions before reaching any conclusions but the changes made by the board "improve the chances" of legislative approval.

Greg Kazmierski


Critical reception

The board received dozens of public comments in support of the standards and heard pleas from local leaders in cities with contaminated water supplies.

Peshtigo town chair Cindy Boyle broke down in tears as she described her community’s plight and her own battle with cancer.

“For four and a half years I have been fighting every single day to set PFOA/PFOS standards,” Boyle said. “I’m not embarrassed. I’m exhausted. I’m pissed off. Our community needs and deserves protection.”

Lee Donahue, a supervisor in the La Crosse County town of Campbell, described how residents unknowingly drank contaminated well water for years.

“It’s like a ticking time bomb,” Donahue said. “You know it’s in your body and you can’t get it out. You seek a safe alternative drinking water source, and you pray for enforceable water standards.”

Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who earlier this month revealed that all six of the city’s wells have PFAS concentrations above the proposed standard -- but below the levels adopted -- said the lack of regulations has left local governments in “the worst form of regulatory limbo.”

Katie Rosenberg


“The public trust is shattered,” she said. “Municipalities can’t shoulder the burdens of doing the right thing by ourselves. Please don’t punt.”

Prehn, a Wausau dentist, accused Rosenberg of creating “hysteria and psychosis.”

“The bottom line is it’s a forever chemical and you’re never going to remove all of it,” he said. “You want an instant fix to a problem that’s been around for generations.”

Frederick Prehn


Proposed rules

Developed over the past two years with input from industry and environmental groups as well as hundreds of concerned citizens, the proposed rules targeted just two of the most extensively studied compounds, PFOS and PFOA.

If approved by the Legislature, the new rules on groundwater would have enabled the DNR to force polluters to clean up spills or face fines if concentrations exceed the standards. The proposed rule also included new or adjusted standards for 20 additional contaminants, including hexavalent chromium.

All told, the DNR estimated it would have cost the state’s businesses and local governments about $6 million per year to comply with the new regulations, while Wisconsin residents could save hundreds of millions of dollars each year in avoided health care costs associated with low birth weight and high blood pressure attributed to PFAS.

The proposed drinking water standards are similar to those adopted by Illinois but less restrictive than those in Minnesota and Michigan, which have also adopted surface water standards.

Scott Manley, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, argued the rules are unlawful because the DNR underestimated the costs of compliance and state law prohibits combined standards for more than one substance.

Other industry representatives urged the board to delay regulation until the EPA establishes federal standards, which they warned will likely be more stringent than the DNR’s.

The EPA in January decided to establish federal drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, though such regulations would not be in place until 2026.

“We’re comparing human health with corporate profits,” said Peshtigo supervisor Kayla Furton. “If corporate profits were removed from this equation there would be no opposition.”

The board later voted unanimously to adopt the DNR’s recommended limits for PFOA and PFOS in surface waters.

The rule limits PFOS, which tends to accumulate in fish, at 8 ppt except in waters “that cannot naturally support fish” or feed other fisheries. The limit for PFOA is 20 ppt in waters that supply drinking water and 95 ppt elsewhere, which the DNR said is a safe level for swimmers.

Permit holders would have more than seven years to come into compliance with the rule, which the DNR estimates will result in about $2.1 million in added costs for about 48 businesses, primarily paper mills, metal finishers, chemical manufacturers and commercial laundries.

In addition, the DNR estimates 23 municipal wastewater treatment plants would need to add filtration to comply with the standards.

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Related to this story

A judge was set to rule Tuesday on whether Wisconsin regulators can require businesses to clean up PFAS contamination without established limits on the chemicals, a decision that will define how far the state can go to control emerging soil contaminants without explicit laws or rules addressing them.

The guidelines released Wednesday are thousands of times lower than Wisconsin’s first drinking water standards for the fluorinated compounds known as PFOA and PFOS, which took effect the same day.

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