The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources did not seek money for remediation of toxic chemicals related to human health issues in its latest budget ask from the state.
According to the recently filed budget request for 2021 through 2023, the agency did not seek any money for PFAS remediation, testing or investigations. The budget request shows a 0.3% increase in funding, though Gov. Tony Evers has asked agencies to cut their budgets since the coronavirus pandemic began.
DNR Secretary Preston Cole submitted the proposed budget earlier this month. The document is more of a recommendation for Evers, who will create his own budget that will be decided upon by the Legislature next spring.
But the decision to not include money to address PFAS doesn’t mean that no money will be set aside in the governor’s budget, said Todd Ambs, the assistant deputy secretary of the DNR.
He said the PFAS Action Council, a task force set up to decide how to address PFAS and how much it will cost, is getting close to putting out recommendations soon. Those recommendations will then be sent straight to Evers’ desk, for consideration in the budget that he sends to legislators for approval.
“We all need clean drinking water,” Ambs said. “We continue to focus on that.”
The decision not to include money for cleanup of the toxic chemicals has been criticized by lawmakers, who were hoping to see the DNR do more to help out affected communities.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said in a release that he was surprised to see no money in the budget going toward PFAS contamination because in the past the DNR has claimed it doesn’t have resources to address the issues.
One of the worst PFAS-contaminated sites in the state is within Nygren’s district — the firefighting foam mixing plant owned by Tyco Fire Products, a subsidiary of Johnson Controls.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals that are used for their water- and stain-resistant properties. The chemicals are most often found in items like clothing, carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging for food products and firefighting foam.
The company tested foam containing PFAS outdoors from 1962 until 2017, when the chemicals were found in drinking water in the surrounding communities. Now, the company captures the foam and it is taken out of state for disposal, instead of flushing the foam into the sewer system, but the legacy contamination remains an issue for community members and the company.
Nygren said in an interview that in the past, the DNR has made it clear in hearings that there just isn’t enough money to do all of the investigations and remediation that communities like Marinette want done.
“Is it not as big of a deal as they say it is? I think it is,” he said. “The people of Marinette think it is.”
The DNR is also working to draft limits on PFAS in groundwater and drinking water. A bill signed into law earlier this year also bans the use of firefighting foam unless in the case of emergencies, and requires that testing facilities contain and dispose of the foam in a DNR-approved manner.
There was no mention of PFAS in the 2019-2021 budget, either.
Among some of the projects receiving funding in the newly proposed budget is contaminated sediment removal from Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and tributaries, for which the DNR is asking for $25 million. That money will help the state leverage up to $117 million more in federal money, according to the proposal.
The budget also requests $50 million annually for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program, which is used to purchase and protect land. The additional money in the budget would extend the program for another 10 years, for $50 million each year, the documents show, running through 2032.
Ambs said the program currently receives $32 million a year.
In recent years, the program has come under fire. Over the past 10 years, many Republican lawmakers have raised concerns about the size of the program and the extent of the state’s landholdings. Legislators have also expressed concern that the land can’t be purchased for development and that the program accrues a large amount of interest on its purchases each week.
Altogether, the DNR manages or protects 1.8 million acres throughout the state.
The Natural Resources Board passed the budget unanimously at its Sept. 23 meeting but did discuss changing the terms of the stewardship program to allow the money to be used for maintenance at purchased properties, instead of just acquisition.
Currently, only small amounts of money from the stewardship program, designated by legislators, are able to be used on projects instead of land acquisition, Ambs said. The last time a budget was passed, legislators set aside money to help with some state parks projects, such as installing vault toilets and updating visitors centers.
Board president Frederick Prehn said passing the budget, including the stewardship program, was important because residents of Wisconsin have seen how important the outdoors are during the pandemic. Visits to the state parks increased this summer, he said.
“People have a taste of the outdoors,” he said. “They’re not going to give it up.”
According to data from the department, visits from May through July were up 14% from last year’s totals, with nearly 3.5 million people visiting parks across the state in July 2020 alone.
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.