Environmental and public health advocates are attempting to defend the state government in a lawsuit brought by the state’s largest business lobby that they say threatens to undermine basic pollution-control laws.
Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a petition Monday asking a judge in Waukesha County Circuit Court to allow the groups to participate in the case brought by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and an Oconomowoc dry cleaner.
The suit seeks to block the Department of Natural Resources from requiring cleanup of unregulated “emerging contaminants,” such as toxic compounds known as PFAS that have polluted groundwater in sites across the state, including Madison, Marinette and La Crosse.
WMC and Leather Rich Inc., or LRI, claim the DNR is subverting the law in the way it administers two environmental cleanup programs by changing policies and enforcing cleanup standards for substances without going through a lengthy rulemaking process.
MEA argues the case is about whether the DNR can continue to protect public health and the environment as it has for more than 40 years under the “spills law.”
The groups seeking to intervene are Citizens for a Clean Wausau, Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Environmental Health Network and former Marinette mayor Doug Oitzinger.
“We’re not talking about theoretical legal arguments here,” said Oitzinger, who currently serves on the Marinette City Council. “The court’s decision will have real-world consequences. Under the Spills Law, DNR is providing critical assistance to people in Marinette, Peshtigo, La Crosse and other communities devastated by PFAS contamination. If WMC prevails, that assistance would vanish — the required well testing, the orders for cleanup and remediation — it would all come to a halt.”
Driven by demographic shifts, economic forces and the societal changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin home prices are soaring, forcing home buyers to take unprecedented risks.
State law gives the DNR the authority to regulate the discharge of hazardous substances, which the law defines as anything “that can cause harm to human health and safety, or the environment, because of where it is spilled, the amount spilled, its toxicity or its concentration.”
There is no definitive list of hazardous substances, which can include toxic chemicals as well manure, corn, or even milk and beer that in high concentrations can foul public waters and kill aquatic life.
WMC argues the DNR should be required to go through the rulemaking process to establish a list of what it considers hazardous substances and at what quantities or concentrations.
In a separate case, WMC has sought to block the DNR from testing wastewater from industrial and municipal treatment plants for PFAS.
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The DNR is in the process of developing water standards for two PFAS compounds and recently began work on standards for 16 more based on recommendations from the state Department of Health Services. As part of the rulemaking process, those standards will require approval from the Republican-led Legislature.
“Promulgating an administrative rule is not a mere formality. The rulemaking process is arduous, and there is no guarantee of success,” the environmental groups argue in their petition. “As such, the ramifications of the Court’s decision in this case are quite consequential. There may be no going back.”