Department of Natural Resources holds public hearings on raising water standards on PFAS

This week the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held a public hearing on proposed limits of PFAS chemical contamination in Wisconsin’s groundwater. It’s the second hearing by the DNR on proposed rules intended to protect the health of people and our environment.

The first hearing in early December was for Wisconsinites to react to proposed standards for limiting PFAS contamination in drinking water. There were many passionate comments from communities like French Island near La Crosse where families have to rely on bottled water due to PFAS contamination in local drinking water sources. They are among the two-thirds of Wisconsin families who get their tap water from groundwater sources, making issues of PFAS contamination in drinking and groundwater deeply entwined.

To watch the archived December 1 public hearing on drinking water standards, create or login to a Wisconsin Eye account.

Find more resources on PFAS, including an excellent guide for Wisconsinites to participate in the public rulemaking process, on MEA’s website.

River Alliance of Wisconsin submitted comments to the DNR in support of raising our clean water standards and protecting Wisconsin families from PFAS pollution.

PFAS contamination is a toxic problem that is expensive (and nearly impossible) to clean up

We’ve seen this before. Sometimes I am haunted by song lyrics. When I think about PFAS the refrain of “When will we ever learn” from “Where have all the flowers Gone?” rings in my ears.

PFAS are just the latest in a long list of unpleasant “discoveries” along with PCBs, asbestos, and many, many others. The large family of chemicals have nasty health effects, are persistent in the environment, and are difficult to destroy. The only prudent course would have been to prevent them from entering the environment to begin with. But Wisconsin has a chance to act quickly to protect our priceless water with improved standards now, before waiting for the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s lengthy process.

The PFAS rules are a small step in the right direction. But they also show us weaknesses in the system Wisconsin (and almost all other states) has used to regulate toxic substances for almost forty years.

The big picture: how our water system fails to protect our health

Our current system – the laws, rules, and day-to-day acts of regulating industry or protecting our natural resources – evolved from a series of crises. It was not designed as an integrated system.

Despite the lofty goal statements in some of our laws, the actual mechanics of the system were not designed to prevent harm. It was designed to slow the release of a few substances into the environment. It does not cover all substances, nor does it take into account the fact that we are all exposed to many, many substances from many sources.

Our current system normalizes degradation. Worse, the system in Wisconsin has been, and continues to be, eroded by the current state legislature. Given changes that the legislature has made in the last ten years, it is now virtually impossible to set additional meaningful standards. So we will continue to see PFAS-like issues moving forward unless we change the way we do things.

So what should we be doing?

Broadly, Wisconsin should create a system that will achieve our human health and ecological goals. This will take time, so in the meantime we need to use our existing system to the best possible effect.

For PFAS, Wisconsin should approve the proposed rules and move quickly to regulate more chemicals in the family. The rules must also reduce PFAS exposure sooner than later. Under some of these proposed rules, actions to reduce PFAS will not be required for close to 20 years. We need our state leaders to act with more urgency.

Next we must start the work to restructure our system so that prevention of harm is the primary goal, not just management of risk. For persistent toxins like PFAS, this means a system that screens chemicals before allowing them to be used so we can prevent problematic substances from entering the environment. It also means making sure that those who cause a problem are responsible for fixing instead of placing the burden on taxpayers or those who suffer the harm.

We must also develop a better way to compare relative burden from pollution than dollars. Spending a million dollars on a piece of control technology is not the same as spending even half a million dollars in health care for someone who suffers from a debilitating condition because of exposure to a substance that the control technology would prevent. It is simply not an apples-to-apples comparison, and yet this is too often how we evaluate whether to regulate or not. No one has the right to pollute or to pass the burden and costs of clean up on to others.

Similarly, an economic comparison does not adequately evaluate long-term or in some cases permanent changes in the environment from pollution. Instead of moving in this direction, in the last several years Wisconsin has moved the wrong way so that only costs of implementation and not benefits (however measured) are the dominant consideration. This is a disservice to the people of Wisconsin and the environment.

Wisconsin Water Agenda: because we have no choice but to build a better system

The twelve elements of the Wisconsin Water Agenda developed by the River Alliance define the characteristics of system that would establish the correct goal for a water system, and be able to attain the goal (which means restoring our waters not continually degrading them) in a manner that is more just and inclusive than the current system.

Water is a finite resource. The impact of this is masked in Wisconsin because we are blessed with vast quantities of water. But there are still limits that we must respect. And the quantity of water we have does not mean it is not vulnerable. We have demonstrated the capacity to contaminate huge volumes of water.

Water that can be used without risk is a fundamental need of all living things. If we contaminate our water, we contaminate ourselves, our children and future generations. We all carry a body burden of toxic chemicals and some of those substances can be passed from mother to child. And it is a need not just to slake our thirst: access to water for recreation has benefits both for physical and mental health. This is the heart of the freedom of water we cherish in Wisconsin.

Although our current system has achieved many advances in water quality, our waters are now at a state that we now have no choice but to build a better system of water management. The good news is that our current system is not some law of nature: we created it and we can, and must, change it.

– Bill Davis, Senior Legal Analyst

Read coverage of this hearing in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

This message is made possible by generous donors who believe people have the power to protect and restore water. Become a member of River Alliance of Wisconsin today.