The public will get a chance to weigh in Tuesday on Wisconsin’s efforts to regulate certain hazardous chemicals in water.
The Department of Natural Resources is in the first stages of a 30-month process of establishing drinking and groundwater standards for a host of new substances, including compounds known as PFAS.
The synthetic compounds, which have been linked to cancer, liver disease and other health problems, have been found in several public drinking water systems, including Madison’s. Because they do not degrade and can build up in human tissue, the DNR considers PFAS a threat to public health.
At the direction of Gov. Tony Evers, the DNR is working to add PFAS to a list of more than 90 regulated contaminants. The rule-making process will establish maximum contaminant levels for drinking, ground and surface waters.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not decided whether to set federal drinking water standards for PFAS. According to the DNR, it could take five years or more for that agency to come up with new rules.
“We can’t really wait around any longer to do nothing,” said Carly Michiels, director of government policy for Clean Wisconsin, which supports the new standards.
The EPA says drinking water is safe with concentrations of PFOS and PFOA — two PFAS compounds — of up to 70 parts per trillion, but the state Department of Health Services has recommended no more than 20 ppt of those two compounds.
As a result of new limits, some 2,000 public water systems, including municipal utilities as well as establishments that serve the public from private wells, will have to begin testing water at least every six years.
Tests have found some level of PFAS in 14 of Madison’s 23 municipal wells, though none above the proposed 20 ppt maximum. The city has taken one well offline as a precautionary measure while exploring treatment options.
Based on data from Michigan, the DNR estimates 15 to 30 systems would need to treat water or drill a new well. The cost of a new private well is about $11,000, but the DNR said treatment for a large municipal water system would cost more than $25 million.
Groundwater standards could result in costs of $50,000 to more than $5 million depending on the number of regulated entities affected. The DNR expects most businesses responsible for PFAS contamination are already sources of other regulated contaminants.
According to the DNR, the impact of surface water standards will be “significant.”
The DNR said the economic benefits of avoided health impacts may outweigh the costs of the new rule, which it expects to be “significant” in the first few years after it goes into effect.
Industry interests have already begun pushing back against the proposed standards.
A group known as the Water Quality Coalition, which includes Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Wisconsin Paper Council and the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, said the DHS standard could “devastate Wisconsin’s economy” and raise residential water bills.
Michiels said the benefits of taking action are worth it.
“There are costs to this problem but I don’t think public health and access to clean, safe drinking water should be pitted against industry and the economy,” she said. “We can’t sit here and wring our hands about the costs.”