Enough talk, it’s time to protect Wisconsin’s water from PFAS

Nov 07, 2023

There’s money and proposed legislation to address contamination, but a “poison pill” in the bill is only good for polluters.

It’s time for the Wisconsin Legislature to get serious about PFAS chemicals in our water.

Here we are in one of the country’s most water-rich states. We’re tucked between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. Almost every community in Wisconsin has a treasured lake, pond, stream or river that it takes pride in. We’re also rich in groundwater, with 97 percent of Wisconsin communities relying on groundwater for their drinking water. We depend on clean groundwater to keep us alive – to keep our kids fed, to keep our communities prosperous.

PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” have been detected in our surface and groundwater across the state – impacting more than 120 communities and posing a significant risk to our health, especially to the health of our kids. This group of highly toxic human-made chemicals are resistant to heat, water, and oil. For decades, PFAS have been used for industrial applications, in firefighting foam, and in consumer products.

PFAS do not break down in the environment and have been linked to serious health effects. These effects include testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, thyroid disease, high blood pressure, lower infant birth weight, decreased fertility in women, and decreased body response to vaccines.

It’s disappointing, to say the least, how so many elected officials are not taking protecting our water resources, especially our drinking water, seriously. The latest: key legislators failed to address a poison pill written into Senate Bill 312, undermining progress on a problem that their own constituents are struggling with every single day.

It’s hardly the first time this has happened regarding safe drinking water – politicians saying one thing to their constituents, then in committees or with their votes doing the exact opposite of what they claim to care about. It’s time these legislators do the right thing for Wisconsin.

How’d we get here?

In May, Gov. Evers signed the state biennial budget, locking in $125 million allocated to remediating PFAS contamination. But in order to use that money, the legislature must support a structure for the funding that puts communities first.

Senate Bill 312 should have provided that structure, but Sens. Eric Wimberger, Rob Cowles, and Cory Tomcyzk fell short. The version they approved in committee included a “poison pill” attaching funding to new limitations on the Department of Natural Resources that restrict where it can test and take enforcement action. These limitations undermine Wisconsin’s battle-tested “spills law,” a law that has been protecting residents for decades from corporate malfeasance that leads to pollution.

The legislation also shifts the intent of the “innocent landowner grant program” away from private well owners and toward corporate entities. Private well owners shouldn’t need to compete for funding with commercial and industrial properties, many of which created the pollution in the first place. For months, constituents have been calling those offices asking them to remove the poison pill from the bill. Instead, they sided with corporate polluters and, with barely 24 hours notice, they released and advanced a new version that was worse than the original.

Back to the drawing board

It’s time to refocus our efforts on the need immediately in front of us – getting funding to communities impacted by PFAS contamination as quickly as possible. That means supporting funding for impacted municipalities and private well owners, without polluter loopholes tied to those programs.

It’s time for decision makers to say no to Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and polluters, and yes to making sure communities have safe, clean drinking water for all.

Let’s put the people of Wisconsin first.

This op-ed was published in Up North News. Read it here.