Wisconsin is dealing with a crisis that is largely unknown and continues to worsen: PFAS contamination (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water and groundwater sources. PFAS are a class of man-made chemical compounds that are commonly found in various industrial products including non-stick cookware, firefighting foam, and water resistant materials. The compounds pose a threat to human health, as they have been linked to cancer, low infant birth weight, and infertility.
Across the state, PFAS contamination sites continue to be discovered, but there is no comprehensive plan to assist communities with remediation efforts. A proposed bill in 2019 aimed to provide resources to municipalities dealing with PFAS contamination, but lobbying efforts and opposition from state Republicans stalled these efforts. Now, Wisconsin is dealing with pockets of PFAS contamination across the entire state without any capacity to assist communities in need of long-term support.
This particular environmental issue parallels the state’s lack of extensive climate policy – both issues, the climate crisis and PFAS contamination, were included in the most recent state budget proposal with specific policy solutions but were removed by state Republicans.
The story of PFAS contamination in Wisconsin also exemplifies a larger issue with the state’s current political condition. State Democrats continue to be blocked on policy issues by staunch opposition from state Republicans who hold a strong majority in the legislature. The case of PFAS contamination highlights the deficiencies in Wisconsin’s ability to contend with natural resources and climate issues.
PFAS and the Dangers They Pose
PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, is the abbreviation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This class of compounds consists of over 9,000 individual chemical compounds that have been produced since the 1940s and are used in a variety of industrial and consumer products, 600 of which are still used in the U.S. They are typically used to produce a fluoropolymer coating, which is used in a range of nonstick and water-resistant products and is composed of extremely strong carbon-fluorine bonds. However, their success as waterproof and nonstick coatings is also their pitfall. PFAS are composed of strong chemical bonds, which makes them excellent repellants but also makes them very resistant to breakdown. This resistance allows the compounds to bioaccumulate in the environment, meaning contaminants become more concentrated as they get passed through the food chain. Ultimately, people can be exposed to PFAS by consuming plants or animals that have high levels of the contaminants in their tissues.
In addition to the various consumer products that contain PFAS, the production and use of industrial materials, like firefighting foam, can create major hotspots of contamination. A Tyco fire training in Marinette, a small town in Northeast Wisconsin, tested and used firefighting foam from the 1960s until 2017. Today, the foam has been linked to as a major source of PFAS contamination in the town’s drinking water. Similarly, widespread use of firefighting foam at La Crosse Regional Airport on French Island also contaminated the water supply, posing serious public health risks to surrounding residents.
Two specific compounds in the PFAS family are of the highest concern to human health and have been connected to adverse health effects including cancer and thyroid hormone disruption. Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are of particular concern given their extreme resistance to breakdown, hence the designation as a ‘forever chemical.’ Once introduced into the environment, these compounds can be transported in soil and water and bioaccumulate in organisms. Fortunately, these two specific PFAS have been phased out of production in the U.S. since the 2000s, but given their persistence in the environment, they can still be major sources of contamination by remaining in soil or water after the initial exposure is over.
There is still much to learn about the effects of long-term PFAS exposure, and additional information will be crucial for the protection of human health. It is estimated that 97 percent of Americans likely have PFAS in their bloodstream. There is evidence that has tied high levels of PFAS exposure to cancer and suppression of the immune system. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS can cause damage to the reproductive system, and recent research has found links to thyroid, kidney, and liver disease.
PFAS Become Controversial in Wisconsin
Though there are 50 sites under investigation for possible PFAS contamination throughout Wisconsin, there has been considerable pushback against state regulation of PFAS levels. Opponents of state regulation of PFAS have argued that federal standards need to be set before the state makes any decisions on allowable PFAS concentrations. The largest business lobby in the state, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), is suing the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) over its authority to regulate PFAS. If successful, the lawsuit would limit the DNR’s ability to enforce the cleanup of PFAS contamination. WMC has filed an additional lawsuit against the DNR, aiming to prevent the agency from requiring PFAS testing of wastewater from municipal and industrial facilities, some of which are owned and operated by WMC members.
In 2019, state legislators introduced the Chemical Level Enforcement and Remediation Act, known as the CLEAR Act, which would require the state to develop standards for allowable levels of PFAS in soil and drinking water. Opposed by the Wisconsin Paper Council, American Chemistry Council, and WMC, the proposed bill was never given a hearing. It regained momentum in 2021 after additional contamination was discovered in the La Crosse area, and new provisions to the bill include municipal grant programs, county well testing, and funding to collect and remove firefighting foam.
Wisconsin is one of 30 states that do not regulate PFAS concentrations in the environment. Many of these states argue that since there are no federal regulations on PFAS levels, there is not enough information for states to impose regulations. Federal efforts in Congress and the EPA are underway. The PFAS Action Act of 2021 passed in the House of Representatives in July and regulates both PFOA and PFOS, designating the compounds as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). This designation would allow the EPA to seek financial damages from known polluters of hazardous materials to clean up the contaminated sites. The EPA may also be making more progress on regulating PFAS contamination. A regulatory determination was issued in March 2021 for PFOA and PFOS, which moves the two compounds further in the regulatory process towards drinking water standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, this process can take up to five years to regulate just one compound, and since thousands of PFAS compounds exist, states may be more efficient at regulating this class of compounds.
PFAS Failures Mirror Deficiencies in State’s Climate Policy
In addition to the threats to human and environmental health, addressing contaminated water supplies is a costly feat. Recent estimates suggest that providing clean drinking water to the 1,200 residents of French Island whose drinking water is contaminated by PFAS would cost over $500,000 per year. The PFAS hotspot on French Island is a product of the La Crosse Regional Airport, which used firefighting foam extensively for decades. In order to remove PFAS from municipal water supplies, extensive filtering systems need to be installed. Experts estimate that treating one well alone could cost upwards of $700,000 a year, or up to $19 million over 50 years. In comparison to other state expenditures, such as allocating $1 million for major bridge repairs in Milwaukee or $700,000 to purchase body-worn cameras for State Patrol, the cost of removing PFAS from water sources is a relatively small drop in the state’s spending bucket.
The failure to include funding for PFAS remediation in the most recent state budget leaves residents in peril and communities struggling to finance clean up efforts. Small municipalities do not have the capacity to finance remediation projects, and the state budget proposals were sweeping efforts to provide assistance. Now, residents are left to shoulder the burden of PFAS-contaminated drinking water with their health on the line.
Unfortunately, PFAS legislation was not the only measure that failed in the State Legislature. This past February, Wisconsin’s Governor Evers proposed a sweeping $91 billion state budget that included major climate policy actions, along with $26 million for water testing and PFAS remediation. A proposed Office of Environmental Justice was vetoed by State Republicans, as well as the proposed Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy. Both of these would have moved the state toward clean energy development and implementation, with a focus on reducing emissions and developing climate policies. Instead, State Republicans insisted that the proposed budget would be a step backward for Wisconsin and cut roughly 300 policy items.
In his 2021 address on the budget proposal, Governor Evers pledged to put Wisconsin on a path to addressing climate change, in addition to prioritizing clean water. Among the bold plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 was increased investments in clean energy and conservation projects, job training for the green energy industry, and creating a state electric vehicle fleet with increased charging stations. Evers’ climate initiatives were vetoed by State Republicans, and climate policy remains limited in Wisconsin.
The Future of PFAS and Climate Policy in Wisconsin
Paul Mathewson, Staff Scientist at Clean Wisconsin, worked to develop some of the policy and scientific proposals of the CLEAR Act and gave us his insights on the issue. Mathewson told Climate XChange that they hoped the CLEAR Act would be “the gold standard of PFAS protection in the country, making sure that we are covering the broadest range of PFAS protection in soil, air, groundwater, and surface water that is feasible.” The CLEAR Act is another example of the political divide coming in the way of real progress for the state. Mathewson says “the most important thing is getting people clean water,” but passing the CLEAR Act is proving to be politically difficult.
The Wisconsin PFAS Action Council is working to advance PFAS initiatives as part of the State’s PFAS Action Plan. The plan serves as a blueprint for action and highlights eight specific actions, including setting standards, sampling for contamination, and preventing future pollution. Mathewson believes this plan is a step in the right direction, but “it really needs to be holistic, to be protective.”
The PFAS crisis in Wisconsin is reaching a tipping point — more and more contaminated sites are being discovered and the problem can no longer be ignored. However, the State Legislature is doing just that: failing to provide necessary funding to affected communities, much like they are unable to pass effective climate policies. The outlook is uncertain for both PFAS remediation and climate policy in Wisconsin. If PFAS programs, a seemingly nonpartisan issue to protect citizens from contaminated water, cannot be passed, it remains unlikely that additional climate initiatives will gain traction in such a polarized political climate. Given Wisconsin’s current divisive political atmosphere, these issues are neglected and leave human and environmental health exposed to needless contamination and degradation.