The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is asking local wastewater treatment plants to begin testing for hazardous industrial chemicals.

The agency sent a letter Monday to 125 municipal utilities encouraging them to begin sampling of water flowing into and out of the plants for highly fluorinated compounds known as PFAS, in an effort to understand how and where the chemicals find their way into drinking water.

“No one should ever be afraid to turn on their tap. Clean drinking water is a public health priority,” said DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole. “Water is life-giving. We have an opportunity with this initiative to take a large step forward in protecting our citizens and our natural resources from harmful contaminants.”

Used for decades in products such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant sprays, and certain types of firefighting foam, the virtually indestructible compounds often end up in sewage plants. The plants release the compounds with treated wastewater into public waters and treated sewage sludge that is applied to farm fields as fertilizer.

Madison and Sun Prairie are among the municipalities asked to do testing, as are Janesville and Beloit. The DNR said the utilities were chosen because they are most likely to receive wastewater from businesses that use the compounds.

The Madison sewerage district handles more than 40 million gallons of wastewater per day from 26 communities. It hasn’t tested for PFAS in the wastewater it receives or the effluent and sludge it releases.

Madison sewage plant employees have observed signs of PFAS contamination — excessive foaming that causes maintenance problems — for more than a decade.

The DNR is asking the utilities to conduct one-time tests, which are estimated to cost $300 to $400.

“We want to get a snapshot of PFAS contamination throughout the state,” said Jason Knutson, the DNR’s wastewater section chief. “It lets us know what we’re dealing with.”

Wisconsin may adopt one of nation's toughest PFAS standards

Data from the voluntary sampling program will be used to develop plans to reduce the amount of two PFAS compounds — known as PFOA and PFOS — entering the plants. The information will also help the DNR develop rules and standards for safe levels of the chemicals in surface and groundwater.

The DNR plans to develop administrative rules in the fall to establish groundwater quality standards for PFOA and PFOS because the federal Environmental Protection Agency does not have standards for the contaminants.

The state Department of Health Services has recommended a combined groundwater enforcement standard of 20 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS.

That is similar to guidelines adopted by New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Minnesota.

PFAS has been detected at 10 Madison municipal wells, at levels below the new recommended state standard. One well about a mile from the Truax Air National Guard base site has been shut down as a precaution.

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