PFAS funding bill – if changed – could mean progress
The latest on PFAS in Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee voted on May 18 to approve $125 million for a “trust fund” to address perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS contamination. The amount is more than what Governor Evers included in his budget proposal, but the JFC delayed deciding specifics on how the money would be used by the state.
On May 24, Senator Eric Wimberger (R – Green Bay) introduced SB 312 which would create the programs to spend the PFAS trust fund. While the promise of funding to deal with PFAS contamination could be a step in the right direction, the bill must be amended to make sure the programs are fair, consistent, and will have state agency staff to help communities with polluted drinking water.
The basics on PFAS pollution
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS, are a very large class of chemicals that have been in use for over sixty years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there are over 12,000 individual PFAS. They are used in a wide array of products such as cosmetics, microwave packages, rain coats, non-stick cookware and more.
Because there are so many PFAS and they have been used for so long, they are found pretty much everywhere in the environment. They are known or suspected of causing reproductive effects, developmental effects, increased risk of some cancers, impairment of the immune system, interference with natural hormones, and increased cholesterol levels. They are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because once they contaminate water and soil, they are extremely hard to remove or remediate.
In Wisconsin, communities are finding PFAS contamination in communities of all sizes, from Marinette, LaCrosse, Wausau, Madison, to the Town of Stella, population 633. River Alliance of Wisconsin has a PFAS timeline that includes pivotal events in our state and links to maps of PFAS pollution hotspots.
What the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee should change in SB 312
On Thursday June 1, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee scheduled a hearing on SB 312 on Monday, June 5 at 11:00 a.m. An Assembly committee hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Legislators need to hear from members of communities impacted by PFAS pollution on what amendments are needed to make the bill helpful for those who cannot safely drink their water.
River Alliance of Wisconsin and our supporters are asking the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee for the following amendments:
Remove limitations on the DNR
Section 10 of SB 312 would limit the DNR’s authority to test for PFAS, and potentially limit when the DNR can take enforcement actions against responsible parties. Section 10 should be removed from SB 312.
Broaden the definition of “PFAS”
The Municipal PFAS Grant Program (Section 9) uses a definition of PFAS that is narrowly defined to only include select PFAS and those for which a standard has been promulgated under state or federal law. Given the limited number of PFAS standards, the length of time it takes to promulgate new standards, and the rapidly emerging research on the dangers associated with more and more PFAS, SB 312 should be amended to include eligibility based on any PFAS for which a health advisory has been issued by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services or the Environmental Protection Agency.
Remove burdensome match requirements
The Municipal PFAS Grant Program (Section 9) and the Innocent Landowner Grant Program (Section 11(4)) are two of the most potentially helpful parts of this bill, but their current structure would require grant recipients to match 20 percent of the funds. This would limit access for communities and individuals, especially those who have fewer resources to address pollution. SB 312 should be amended to remove these requirements, or at the very least, lower them to 5 percent.
No funding for staff means uncertainty for those with contaminated water
Neither SB 312 nor the state budget proposal include dedicated Department of Natural Resources staff to manage these programs, and requests by the state agency for additional staff to respond to PFAS issues have been denied by the legislature. From testing to grant approvals, these programs do not run themselves. Staffing is necessary so that these programs can be operational as quickly as possible to help people with urgent drinking water contamination problems.
These top changes are needed, but the entire bill should be reviewed for consistency and for terms that are not defined. There are terms such as “emerging contaminant” or terms like “standard” or “limit” that are used interchangeably in the bill but are defined differently in other statutes. All of these lead to ambiguity and hence possible unnecessary litigation.
Finally, the very fact that funding to deal with PFAS and the legislation to create the programs are separate should concern Wisconsin voters. The money and the plan to spend it usually go together. Because this is about people like those who live on French Island who have depended on bottled water for years, our state leaders cannot put politics and a lengthy rulemaking process in the way of protecting people’s health. The uncertainties with the current process of splitting funding and policy will not get us closer to a solution.
The people of Wisconsin want Clean Water Now
Helping people who face drinking water contamination is urgent. A strong majority of voters in 10 counties voted YES to a Clean Water Now Advisory referendum that read: Should the State of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of Wisconsin? Voters in Marquette (73%), Portage (77%) and Wood Counties (76%) approved referendums in the spring of 2021. Voters in Eau Claire (79%) and La Crosse Counties (86%) approved referendums in the spring of 2022. And in the fall of 2022, voters in Adams (79.7%), Bayfield (80%), Green (84%), Juneau (79.6%), and Outagamie (79.5%) Counties approved referendums.
– Bill Davis, Senior Legal Analyst
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