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DNR fish programs

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers says he wants to restore science-based management of the environment at the Department of Natural Resources by restoring scientists' positions. The positions were cut by Republicans who opposed DNR research into the way pollution and climate change affect fish, wildlife and forests.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to re-instill science in environmental policy-making could face political challenges when it is considered Tuesday by the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee.

Evers wants to restore five of the 18.4 senior research scientist positions that were cut in 2015 by his Republican predecessor and GOP lawmakers. The cuts were made as a way of eliminating Department of Natural Resources studies of climate change and pollution from mining.

Evers would put the five scientists to work researching climate-induced stress on state waterways and pollution problems that include water contamination that comes primarily from businesses, according to a paper published by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau last week.

Among the contaminants are health-threatening PFAS compounds linked to industries ranging from paper manufacturing to metal plating.

The state business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and an industry lobbying group called the Wisconsin Paper Council have urged caution in setting standards for PFAS pollution.

The paper council noted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t set limits and said that testing for the hazardous PFAS compounds is “onerous and expensive.”

However, conservation groups have accused the EPA of moving too slowly. They point out that more than a dozen states have set their own PFAS standards to protect public health.

Evers has voiced support for enforceable health-based PFAS standards in Wisconsin, along with a DNR effort in places where cleanups are needed to protect the public from contaminated water and soil. Republicans have proposed much narrower regulations that would limit the use of PFAS-containing chemicals in firefighting foam.

The 2015 cuts to DNR scientific personnel and other staff losses have left the agency without expertise to research such problems as disease-causing organisms in water at swimming beaches, and ways to restore shorelands and lakes. The department has reduced ability to study bacterial algae in public waters, fish populations, suppression and management of wildfires and basic lake science, according to the fiscal bureau.

Attempts to reach Republican and Democratic members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee were unsuccessful.

On Tuesday, the budget panel is also scheduled to review an Evers proposal to spend $200,000 on determining the extent and locations where PFAS contamination exists.

If the Legislature doesn’t fund the effort, the Evers administration would consider taking the money from a popular program that helps businesses and other landowners clean up polluted property, according to the fiscal bureau.

Contaminated drinking water is believed to be the main pathway PFAS takes into the human body, but there is growing concern about potential health problems from the accumulation of the chemicals in fish that humans consume.

“Additionally, DNR reports that there is concern among hunters about deer that browse in PFAS-contaminated areas,” the fiscal bureau says in its budget paper.

“The extent to which PFAS may be absorbed into plant mass and consumed by deer and other game species is unknown. This is another priority research area that DNR would plan to investigate with additional water-quality researchers.”

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.