On a day dedicated to appreciating clean water, more than two dozen environmental and social justice organizations called on Wisconsin lawmakers to regulate a group of hazardous chemicals that have been found in drinking water across the state, including Madison’s.
The coalition is pushing for adoption of a bill known as the CLEAR Act, which would require the Department of Natural Resources to establish and enforce standards for at least six fluorinated compounds in water, air and land, known collectively as PFAS.
“As it stands right now, public water systems in Wisconsin are not required to test our drinking water for PFAS,” the groups wrote in a joint statement to dozens of state legislators representing districts with known PFAS releases. “The most important consequence of doing nothing is exposure to undetected PFAS contamination in our drinking water and our environment.”
The coalition of 28 groups, organized by the PFAS Community Campaign, points out that other states — including Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts — have enacted enforceable standards for the compounds.
PFAS are a group of chemicals found in numerous products, including foam used to fight oil-based fires. Sometimes called “forever chemicals,” they don’t break down naturally and can accumulate in the body.
Studies have shown two of the compounds, PFOA and PFOS, may increase people’s risk of cancer and affect cholesterol levels, childhood behavior, the immune system and the ability to get pregnant.
For the most part, U.S. chemical manufacturers have stopped making PFOA and PFOS, but according to the DNR the compounds are still imported in consumer goods, and it is still legal to use existing stocks of firefighting foam that contain PFOS.
There are no federal health standards, but the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board on Wednesday unanimously authorized the DNR to move forward on a 30-month process of establishing water quality standards for PFAS.
The Department of Health Services has recommended a combined groundwater enforcement standard of 20 parts per trillion for two compounds, PFOA and PFOS.
In addition to mandating standards, the CLEAR Act, introduced by Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, and Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, would allow the DNR to require anyone who possesses PFAS to prove they have the financial means to clean up any potential contamination.
The bill has the support of environmental and public health organizations as well as one firefighters group.
Hearing in doubt
Lobbyists for the dairy, paper, chemical and food-processing industries, as well as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, oppose it. Those same groups have also criticized the DHS recommendations as too restrictive, saying the required cleanup could “devastate Wisconsin’s economy.”
The CLEAR Act has been referred to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, but a spokesman for Hansen said he doesn’t expect it will receive a hearing. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, who heads the committee, did not respond to questions Wednesday about the bill.
Lawmakers are also considering a Republican-sponsored bill that would limit where firefighters and others could test or train with foam containing PFAS. It would allow the use of such foam only in emergency fire response or in testing areas that the DNR determines have “appropriate containment, treatment, and disposal measures.”
Darsi Foss, director of the DNR’s environmental management division, told a Senate committee in September that the GOP bill did not go far enough and recommended changes included in the CLEAR Act, which she said “provides this state with the tools it needs to move forward to comprehensively address this issue.”
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Support for both
Laura Olah, coordinator for the PFAS Community Campaign, said her group supports both bills.
“As long as they’re in combination,” Olah said. “(The GOP) bill by itself is not strong enough. It does have things that aren’t in the CLEAR Act.”
While the DNR is taking steps to regulate PFAS, the group says additional legislation would specify its authority in the face of challenges from industry groups and shorten the timeline for taking action.
“It can take as long as 10 years to get standards on the books,” the groups said. “Affected communities need enforceable standards now.”
‘A day without water’
The statement was issued on a day when the nonprofit Value of Water Campaign was encouraging people to “imagine a day without water.”
As part of that educational campaign, a group of third-graders carried 53 gallons of water — the average amount used by a Madison resident each day — from Lincoln Elementary School to the city’s Well 18 on Park Street.
Isiah Haynes, 8, lugged a 5-gallon cooler for most of the half-mile walk, insisting he could carry more.
His teacher, Angie Hall, explained her class has been learning about water conservation and social justice, touching on issues of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, as well as PFAS, which has been found at some level in 14 of Madison’s 23 municipal wells, including one that was taken offline as a precaution.
“Guess how many of these 53 gallons are used for toilets,” said Amy Deming, an outreach specialist for the Madison Water Utility.
“A million,” one student offered.
“It has to be less than 53,” Deming suggested.
Eventually the students lined up 12 containers to represent what gets flushed, another 10 for showers, eight for washing clothes.
“That’s how much water is wasted just in leaks,” Deming said, pointing to Haynes’ cooler and another gallon.
Finally there was a single container remaining.
“That jar there is our drinking water,” Deming said.