Wisconsin has chosen a California environmental law firm to help investigate and go after those responsible for PFAS contamination.
The Department of Justice on Wednesday said Sher Edling LLP has been awarded a contract to represent the state in cases involving ubiquitous hazardous compounds sometimes called “forever chemicals.”
According to DOJ, the San Francisco firm, which represents other state and local governments in environmental cases, was the lowest bidder among finalists selected from 11 proposals.
“Every Wisconsinite — whether they live in the Driftless, the Central Sands, the Northwoods, or in the heart of our urban areas — should be able to trust the water from their tap. Period,” said Gov. Tony Evers. “But for far too many Wisconsin households that is not the case, and I am glad we are moving forward to hold polluters accountable so we can clean up our water and protect the health and safety of our communities.”
The DNR released a proposed list of 743 “impaired” waters that cannot support recreation or healthy plant and animal populations.
With thousands of variations, PFAS have been used for decades in hundreds of products, including firefighting foam and water-resistant fabrics. Some compounds, which do not break down naturally, have been linked to cancer, liver disease and problems with the immune system.
The Department of Natural Resources is monitoring more than 40 PFAS contamination sites across the state, including in Madison, where they have resulted in health advisories for fish. PFAS have affected dozens of private drinking wells in La Crosse and Marinette.
Attorney General Josh Kaul said in a statement that outside counsel “will enhance our ability to get accountability from those who are responsible for the severe harms that PFAS contamination has caused in Wisconsin.”
According to a copy of the contract provided by the governor’s office, Sher Elding will operate under the direction of the attorney general and will work on a contingency basis, meaning the state will not have to pay unless it wins.
The contract terms are 7.5% below contingency fees allowed by state statute and includes a cap of $27.75 million with the exception of “reasonable costs and expenses” determined by a court.
A DOJ spokesperson declined to say whether the private law firm would be used to go after state and local governments — including the city of Madison, Dane County and the Wisconsin National Guard — deemed responsible for PFAS contamination.
The announcement comes as Republican legislators are pushing a bill that would shield polluters from legal claims and possibly prevent the state from enforcing cleanup laws.
The bill, passed by the Assembly on a party-line vote, would create a $10 million grant program to help communities clean up contamination from compounds known as PFAS.
Under the bill, any local government that accepts a grant would be barred from bringing legal action against those responsible for the contamination. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Counsel, the bill could also prevent the DNR from enforcing environmental remediation laws in cases where grant money is used for cleanup.