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Natural Resources board to vote on 'watered down' PFAS foam rule

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Wisconsin’s natural resources policy board is set to vote on permanent rules implementing a law that restricts the use of firefighting foam containing toxic chemicals.

Gov. Tony Evers signed a Republican-sponsored bill in 2020 that prohibits the use of foam that contains certain PFAS compounds except in emergency situations and in testing facilities with “appropriate containment, treatment, and disposal measures.”

It was up to the Department of Natural Resources to define those treatment and disposal measures.

The Natural Resources Board adopted a temporary rule in December 2020 that outlined steps for testing facilities to contain and treat foam, and effectively banned them from dumping foam with detectable amounts of PFAS into sewers.

But Republican lawmakers stripped out key provisions, including numeric limits on the amount of PFAS in wastewater, which industry groups had opposed. Instead, the proposed rule requires treatment that reduces PFAS concentrations “to the maximum degree achievable.”

Critics said the Legislature “watered down” the rule, although state law prohibits the DNR from putting those blocked provisions back into the permanent rule.

But Doug Oitzinger, a Marinette City Council member who helped craft the legislation, said the lack of meaningful measurements in the rule will open polluters up to lawsuits if any amount of PFAS is detected in foam put into the sewers.

The DNR estimates the rules would result in total costs of $600,000 to $4 million a year for a couple of hundred facilities that use PFAS foam in their fire-suppression systems. However, those costs are expected to shrink over time with the use of alternative foams.

The board is scheduled to vote on the rules at its Jan. 26 meeting in Madison.

Used for decades in firefighting foam and consumer products, PFAS have been linked to cancer, liver disease and other health problems. Sometimes called “forever chemicals,” they don’t break down naturally and can accumulate in the human body.

The DNR is monitoring more than 40 PFAS contamination sites around the state, including one linked to a Marinette manufacturer of firefighting foam that could result in the state’s largest-ever environmental cleanup.

Several contaminated sites at the Dane County Regional Airport have been linked to training areas used for decades by the Wisconsin Air National Guard and local fire departments.

Environmental reporter Chris Hubbuch's favorite stories of 2021

Stories are a bit like children when it comes to picking favorites. But then who has room in their wallet for pictures of 278 kids? So here are five that kind of stand out in my mind. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I did writing them. 

The so-called "forever chemicals" have been used for decades in firefighting foam and consumer products.

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