Summer 2022 newsletter
Enjoy River Alliance of Wisconsin’s Summer 2022 WaterWays newsletter. To get a copy of WaterWays, become a River Alliance member or pick up a print copy at local events with our partners across Wisconsin. Download a PDF copy of the full newsletter.
Summer 2022 | Volume 28, Issue 2
by Allison Werner
I am a firm believer in the power of one person. When facing overwhelming challenges, I remind myself of the dedicated people who choose to step up and do something to protect our waters. Most of Wisconsin’s watershed groups and local efforts started when one person turned their concerns into action. The waters of our state have watchdogs because of these water champions.
You’ll meet two of these local leaders in this issue’s clear water champions feature story on PFAS. Thanks to Tom Kilian and Cindy Boyle, more water testing, information sharing, and public discussions about how to address water contamination have taken place in their communities. Tom and Cindy took their activism further by running for local office. They recognize how local governments still have a fair amount of power to protect the health and safety of their communities.
You can use your power to protect our waters by voting. River Alliance is leading a non-binding referendum campaign to give voters a way to declare that clean water is a right the state legislature should provide to all Wisconsinites. The referendum question will be on ballots for the third time in November. Results will be shared with the new legislature in January 2023. Read the back page if your community will have the question on your local ballot.
You also have the power to recognize who is impacted by pollution the most and work to change the current system that takes power away from those communities. Start with learning about environmental justice and environmental racism. We can have an honest conversation about changes we can make personally and as a community.
River Alliance staff and board have been learning together with the guidance of Cream City Conservation. The work is ongoing, but we have set our first priorities on actions we can take to advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in our organization and in the conservation movement. Find an overview of our plans for the next year on the back page. We invite you to join us on our journey to become a more welcoming organization.
The Problem With PFAS in Wisconsin water
by Stacy Harbaugh
PFOA and PFOS are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are a large family of chemicals used in products from fire extinguishing foam to non-stick pans, food packaging containers, and some raincoats. The chemicals cause harm to human health, are persistent in our environment, and are difficult to destroy.
In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new health advisories for four PFAS substances (PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and PFBS). The new EPA advisories say what clean water advocates have been saying for years: there is nearly no safe amount of certain PFAS in our water. These new federal advisories highlight how the standards approved by the Governor Walker-era holdovers on the Natural Resources Board and the state legislature this year are not protective of our water.
This leaves Wisconsin in a gray area between what we know to be an urgent health and environmental problem and the limits established under our system that is supposed to protect our water resources.
What local leaders are doing to deal with PFAS
We talked to two clean water advocates who both went from grassroots organizing around water protection to running for local office to find solutions to PFAS contamination. They are using advocacy tools that go beyond relying on politicians at the state level to defend our water.
Tom Kilian – City of Wausau
What Tom Kilian witnessed during the City of Wausau’s proposal to expand Thomas Street around ten years ago deepened his understanding of how environmental justice is entwined with issues of housing, health, transit, and gentrification.
The city bought properties in the working class neighborhood at less than market value, which violated federal law. Wausau lost eligibility for federal funding for the project, and a U.S. Department of Transportation letter warned that the city’s actions may have caused irreparable harm to low-income and minority populations.
“I’d been active in neighborhood issues for many years,” Tom said. “It felt like regular residents had nearly no representation, and their concerns and opinions were frequently ignored. There wasn’t real meaningful public participation or responsiveness from representatives.”
The gap between how land-use decisions were made and the public’s ability to easily access information and intervene in decisions that would negatively affect them was why Citizens for a Clean Wausau was founded in 2018. With a focus on research and armed with the power of public records requests, the group has tenaciously pushed for government and corporate transparency.
“Everything Citizens for a Clean Wausau has been able to do ties directly or indirectly to Wisconsin’s Spills Law,” he explains. “Chapter 292 on remedial action requires the state to keep a database of sites with residual contamination. Databases such as the Bureau for Remediation and Redevelopment Tracking System are valuable for citizens to have access to records and be aware of groundwater and soil contamination in our communities.”
Their victories include sharing Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources records requests about faulty 3M air pollution controls with journalists, which prompted increased scrutiny from communities across the state. They used a variety of public records and pushed for four years to ensure that the city property at Riverside Park was thoroughly investigated for dioxins; the site will be remediated as a non-industrial site. At a former Connor Forest Industries property at 1300 Cleveland Avenue, they leveraged open records requests to prove to the city that the site needed in-depth water and soil testing for serious contamination problems. They also pushed for substantial remediation so that nearby residential areas would be safer.
As a leading champion of these efforts, Kilian made the decision to run for city council in the April 2020 election and won. He saw running for office as a necessity if clean water advocates were to make progress on environmental protection issues.
“We had to take our advocacy from the outside and transform it into action on the inside of local government,” said Tom.
The urgency of PFAS problems came home to the City of Wausau in February, when PFAS was found in all six of the city’s water wells at levels that exceeded 20 parts per trillion. Wausau leaders continue to struggle to find solutions while navigating the gap between the new, strict federal health advisories and weaker state water pollution standards.
One year earlier, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce filed a lawsuit against the DNR on behalf of a dry cleaning company. The complaint suggests that the DNR doesn’t have the authority to regulate hazardous substances such as PFAS without first creating rules through the state legislature. In response, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, Wisconsin Environmental Health Network, and Doug Oitzinger, a former mayor of Marinette, joined the lawsuit as friends of the court to be a voice for clean water in the debate.
Though the WMC vs. DNR lawsuit is centered on PFAS, Wisconsin’s Spills Law applies to all hazardous substances. The definition of a hazardous substance in the spills law is clear, which makes the politically charged and lengthy process of rulemaking unnecessary. Clean water advocates are concerned that weakening the Spills Law will prevent the DNR from taking urgent action to hold polluters responsible.
“The Spills Law works with a domino effect,” he explains. “When there is a problem with pollution, the DNR issues a responsible party letter. Then a responsible party does an investigation. This creates records related to the investigation and what’s there. Then the public has the ability to access the information and can be aware of what’s happening in our environment. Without the Spills Law, all of the processes and outcomes Citizens for a Clean Wausau has had wouldn’t have been possible.”
Tom sees the lawsuit as another example of what he describes as undue corporate lobby influence on our regulatory dynamic. He explains that the DNR’s role goes beyond recreation and tourism. The state agency exists to regulate pollution, and it can only function if it has the authority to act to protect the health of people and our environment.
“I can’t overstate how important this is for environmental justice,” he said. “Often neighborhoods like ours don’t have a lot of money. There’s not a lot of political juice like that of giant corporate interests. Our last resource is for regulators to do their jobs to protect people and the environment they live in. This is about people’s health here. We’re talking about cancer and endocrine disorders. People’s health and lives literally hinge on the DNR’s ability to regulate and exercise their authority.”
Cindy Boyle – Town of Peshtigo
When Cindy Boyle’s family learned about PFAS hot spots in neighboring Marinette in 2017, she and concerned neighbors organized a grassroots group called SOH2O, or Save Our Water, to urge the Peshtigo town board to help those with contaminated private drinking water wells.
“We have had to fight hard for such a fundamental thing,” she explains. “It’s a kind of psychological terrorism when you can’t drink your water, for just the freedom, assurance, and peace of mind to enjoy a cup of tea free of worry.”
When the town board failed to recognize how urgent the problem was, Cindy and other residents ran for public office on the issue of clean water and won. Since then, the Peshtigo board has made progress by researching the scope of the problem and assessing the costs of engineering solutions.
Cindy knows this work takes pragmatism and tenacity. Even if our government doesn’t work well, it is designed to work. But it requires people to be engaged and hold leaders accountable. It’s also clear to her that even as federal health standards evolve, and our state’s standards are slow to catch up, everything starts with knowing what’s in the water.
“When you test, you find. When you find, you report. When you report, the public becomes aware. When the public becomes aware, you can take action. It’s a matter of the masses realizing the truth of the lack of safety in their drinking water.”
Cindy has given testimony at statewide hearings for PFAS standards, advised on the development of the CLEAR Act, and served on a state advisory committee on PFAS. She is connected with a larger movement that includes other local government leaders, statewide environmental groups like River Alliance of Wisconsin, and Great Lakes regional and national efforts to figure out emerging strategies for dealing with PFAS.
One strategy she and her neighbors are using is filing a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Superfund Law.
“Even if we aren’t ‘successful’ with the citizens’ petition, it isn’t the end of the world,” she said. “If in twelve months, the EPA responds with an analysis, the process might put us in the front of the line for a desk review or earlier action and possibly an intervention based on the sensitivity of the area, our population, and the degree of contamination. The EPA could force a responsible party to remediate or mitigate risk.”
Cindy had a thyroidectomy when she was in her 30s. Her sister had thyroid disease. Her mother had kidney cancer in her 30s. And while Cindy believes her family’s health is deeply connected to their environment, she didn’t think of herself as an environmentalist when water pollution issues pushed her to become an advocate for her community’s health.
“You can’t drink poison; we have no other choice,” she said. “If people think there is a white knight coming to save them, they are wrong. I don’t believe that is a defeatist statement. You are your own white knight. You have to fight your own fight. By virtue of fighting your own fight, you will positively impact others. That’s the exponential good that can come out of your efforts.”
Roadmap to diversity, equity and inclusion
By Allison Werner
Two pivotal dates in 2020 were reminders of the truth about our country’s inequities of race, health, and public access to our environment. On March 24, 2020, Governor Tony Evers issued Emergency Order #12 which outlined “safer at home” guidelines to direct resources needed to respond to and contain the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. On May 25, 2020, George Perry Floyd Jr. was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer during an arrest. On the same day in New York City’s Central Park, the video of a birdwatcher named Christian Cooper, who was the target of a false police call by a white woman, went viral.
These pivotal dates exposed problems we already knew existed: racism, racial profiling, the definition of an essential worker, who does and does not have access to health services, how our workplaces can or cannot accomodate remote work or illness or family care. We were thankful for clean water every time we washed our hands. We retreated to the outdoors when we couldn’t gather inside. We witnessed how experiences of the COVID crisis and access to public spaces and services were not all the same for all.
River Alliance staff and board have spent time reflecting on these inequalities and we are recommitting ourselves to create an organization and workplace where everyone feels valued and respected for the unique perspectives and experiences they bring. We can no longer live with inequity. We can only fulfill our mission if we deeply and completely transform how we help empower people to protect and restore water.
With the assistance of Cream City Conservation, we developed a diversity and inclusion strategy that will create and maintain an inclusive workplace and organization. Our goals include the following:
- Transforming into a welcoming organization where everyone can succeed in a supportive culture with improved and operationalized policies and practices
- Centering grassroots local leaders in our programs and communications
- Elevating and co-conspiring with marginalized communities who face systemic barriers to clean water, equitable access to natural resources, and belonging to the conservation movement
We have commitments from our staff and board to achieve our goals. We are starting with evaluating our organizational culture, relationships, communications, membership engagement, policies, and hiring and retention practices.
To be successful, we also need the commitment of every partner to understand what we are trying to achieve, to work together and be open to change. We invite you to join us in this work.
Clean Water Now referendum on more ballots this fall
By Johnson Bridgwater
Four more Wisconsin counties approved adding the Clean Water Now advisory referendum question to local ballots this fall. Most recently, Juneau County joined Adams, Green and Outagamie Counties in the Clean Water Now movement. Since the publication of our print newsletter, the Bayfield County Board unanimously approved adding the question to fall ballots.
The referendum question asks “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?” Clean Water Now referendum results are sent to state legislators, the Wisconsin Counties Association, and the Governor.
In the spring of 2021, voters in Marquette (73%), Portage (77%), and Wood (76%) Counties approved referendums. In the spring of 2022, voters in Eau Claire (79%) and La Crosse (86%) Counties approved referendums. These results make it clear that when voters are asked if they believe in the right to clean water, they vote YES in strong numbers that transcend political party lines.
There is still time to get the referendum question on your county’s fall ballot. Contact Water Advocates Organizer Johnson Bridgwater at [email protected] to learn how your county can approve the question before the August 30 deadline.
Please join us. Get updates on the counties that will include the Clean Water Now question on fall ballots. Follow @CleanWaterNowWI and #CleanWaterNowWI on Instagram and Twitter. Stay in touch because we all know “you can’t ‘Wisconsin’ without clean water.”
If you have questions or would like to help encourage your county to take action, contact me at [email protected].
Volunteers needed for Snapshot Day
by Ellen Voss
Looking for a way to give a little something back to the rivers and lakes that have given us so much? On August 20, join fellow water enthusiasts from all over Wisconsin for the ninth annual Snapshot Day.
The one-day statewide scavenger hunt for aquatic invasive species is occurring at a location near you, and there are many ways to get involved. From recording data to sifting through pebbles looking for snails to scanning the shoreline with binoculars searching for invasive plants, you can stay dry or get your feet wet monitoring pre-selected waterbodies for invasive plants and critters.
This early-detection effort provides a treasure trove of invaluable data to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that guides future management plans. Previous Snapshot Days have led to the early detections of new invasive species and newly impacted waterbodies.
It only takes a few hours, and it’s a great way to do a little something for the waters of Wisconsin that we literally could not live without. Get registered today at wateractionvolunteers.org/events and we’ll see you on the water in August!
Friday, August 12
Learn more and register online. (Training will be recorded if you cannot attend the training)
Saturday, August 20
8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. (time may vary by location)
Show us your favorite river in the ninth annual River Alliance of Wisconsin photo contest!
We’re looking for photos of breathtaking landscapes, vivid plant and animal life, diverse human experiences, as well as threats to our rivers. Whether you’ve been taking photos for years or are a new shutterbug, send us high-resolution images of the places you love and help us show more people how beautiful Wisconsin’s water life can be.
Prizes will be announced this fall. Deadline for submissions is November 15. For rules and submission guidelines, visit wisconsinrivers.org/photo-contest-2022.
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