Why Wisconsin’s Spills Law protects our water and our economy

Sep 9, 2021 | DNR, Drinking Water, Water Policy

For more than 40 years you and I have been protected by a part of Wisconsin’s laws called the Spills Law. The Spills Law requires people and businesses to report a release into the environment of anything that could be hazardous to people, plants or animals. It gives the Department of Natural Resources the authority to take steps to remedy the problem and require the responsible party to take steps to contain and clean up the spill.

Now the Spills Law is under attack. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is suing the DNR to gut the Spills Law that has worked well to protect our water for decades. River Alliance of Wisconsin and four other organizations and individuals, represented by Midwest Environmental Advocates, have petitioned to be a party to this lawsuit to defend the protections the Spills Law provides us all.

Wisconsin’s Spills Law makes common sense and is grounded in what we all learned in kindergarten: if you make a mess, you are responsible to clean it up. Put another way, no one has the right to contaminate our water. Particularly for business owners, you have the ethical responsibility to understand your operation well enough to know whether any of your actions could create a hazard to others.

Specifically, the Spills Law requires, “a person who possesses or controls hazardous substances or who causes the discharge of a hazardous substance shall notify the department immediately of any discharge” wis stats 292.11(2).

By state law, a hazardous substance means, “any substance or combination substances including any waste of solid, semisolid, liquid or gaseous form which may cause or significantly contribute to an increase in mortality or an increase in serious irreversible or incapacitating reversible illness or which may pose a substantial present or potential hazard to human health or the environment because of its quantity, concentration or physical, chemical or infectious characteristics. This term includes, but is not limited to, substances which are toxic, corrosive, flammable, irritants, strong sensitizers or explosives…” wis stats 292.01 (5)

This part of the law is intentionally broad and comprehensive. It has to be if we want to protect our health and the environment for two big reasons. First, rivers, lakes, and especially groundwater are extremely expensive to clean up once they are contaminated. The DNR must be able to act quickly to contain any spill. Second, there are many substances that are not problematic under normal circumstances, but are hazardous in other circumstances. For example, manure from cows can be applied to fields as a fertilizer, however, if a manure storage lagoon breaches and spills thousands of gallons of manure into a stream it is a hazard that will kill thousands of fish and make the stream unusable for recreation, or will contaminate drinking water wells of nearby families.

The Spills Law has served the people, businesses, and environment of Wisconsin well since it was passed more than 40 years ago. It has obviously not stymied business or growth. But now WMC’s lawsuit could gut the protections we have all benefited from.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is a trade association that claims to represent the interests of Wisconsin business. They are very active in elections and lobbying the legislature. One would think a powerful business lobby in Wisconsin would make clean water a top priority. We would not have our dairy, beer, paper, food production or tourism industries without clean water. Unfortunately WMC has a long history of doing the exact opposite through actions like this lawsuit to undo the Spills Law.

This specific lawsuit is about PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” which have been linked to cancer and other serious health effects. However, this lawsuit, if successful, is much broader and would remove the protections we now have from a spill of any hazardous substance. This means DNR will not be able to act quickly to contain spills, and you and I will be on the hook for the clean-up instead of the people who caused the spill. To prevent this outcome, the River Alliance of Wisconsin and our partners have petitioned to be a party to this lawsuit to protect the Spills Law for all of us.

– Bill Davis, Senior Legal Analyst, River Alliance of Wisconsin


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