Republican lawmakers have blocked the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from enforcing new regulations designed to keep some “forever chemicals” out of the environment.
The Legislature’s rules committee voted 6-4 along party lines Friday to strip key language from a newly adopted rule limiting the use of firefighting foam containing chemicals known as PFAS, including targets for evaluating the effectiveness of treatment.
Democrats accused the committee of “neutering” the state’s first law aimed at curbing PFAS contamination, while the committee’s GOP leaders agreed with industry groups who argued the DNR overstepped its authority.
“The issue before us goes beyond the intent of the Legislature,” said co-chair Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater. “We can’t let government go rampant.”
Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, accused the committee of backtracking on a bill that was “the minimum we can do.”
“The bar was lowered to the point we can trip over it, and even that was too much,” Larson said. “We are tripping backward over it.”
The temporary rule, which took effect Dec. 4 and will remain in place until a permanent rule is adopted, outlined steps that testing facilities must take to contain and treat fluorinated foam and effectively prohibits them from discharging water with detectable amounts of PFAS.
Industry groups opposed the rule, which was drafted to comply with a GOP-sponsored law passed last year that restricts the use of PFAS foams to emergency situations and testing facilities with “appropriate containment, treatment, and disposal measures.”
The law left it to the DNR to define those treatment and disposal measures.
While the law explicitly prohibits the discharge of PFAS-containing foam into storm or septic sewers, it does not define foam, which can be diluted in water without removing the PFAS.
Darsi Foss, administrator of the DNR’s Environmental Management Division, said the amended rule creates a loophole that allows someone to sop up PFAS-laden foam and throw it into any landfill, where PFAS could leak back into the environment.
Without testing targets, Foss said, “folks are probably guessing if they’re doing the right thing.”
Sen. Robert Cowles, who authored the bill with former Rep. John Nygren, of Marinette, issued a statement saying the DNR’s emergency rule “appropriately reflected Legislative intent” but included “ambiguities” that should have been addressed in the ongoing process to establish a permanent rule.
The Green Bay Republican said he looks forward to working with stakeholders “to address concerns while upholding the intended outcome of the effort: cleaner water.”
The vote came after a hearing where the only invited speakers were representatives from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby, the American Chemistry Council, Midwest Food Products Association and the DNR.
Scott Manley, vice president of government relations for WMC, said the rule, even with the committee’s limits, would be the nation’s “most stringent treatment and disposal” requirement for firefighting foam.
Manley said the DNR’s proposed treatment methods will result in clean water but said the agency does not have the authority to require testing of that water or to set the proposed limits.
Jason Culotta, president of the Midwest Food Products Association, said the inclusion of numeric targets for PFAS compounds used in food packaging establishes “a defacto regulatory standard,” creating liabilities for his industry.
‘Insult to injury’
Environmental groups called the committee’s actions “shameful” and “a disgrace.”
“By gutting these rules, (the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules) is doing the bidding of industry PFAS users,” said Carly Michiels, government affairs director for Clean Wisconsin. “To add insult to injury, the hearing completely cut out the people who are dealing with the health consequences of contaminated drinking water and demanding action from their lawmakers.”
PFAS have been linked to cancer, liver disease and thyroid problems and may interfere with the effectiveness of vaccines. A recent study also found exposure to high levels of two common compounds leads to lower sperm count and smaller penises.
Across the state
Concerning levels of PFAS have been found throughout Wisconsin in drinking water, groundwater, surface water, soil, sediments, air, fish and wildlife, as well as human blood samples.
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.