Republican legislators voted to block rules created by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to prevent the release of “forever chemicals” into the environment.
The Legislature’s administrative rules committee voted 6-4 Friday along party lines to strip the newly passed rule, which sought to limit the use of firefighting foam to emergencies and in facilities built to properly contain and dispose of the foam.
The emergency rule was meant to clarify and set standards set forth in Act 101, which the Legislature passed in late 2019. Act 101 went into effect on Sept. 1, prohibiting companies that manufacture PFAS-containing firefighting foam from testing the substances without proper containment and treatment, but the definition of treatment and disposal measures were left to the DNR.
The temporary emergency rule, which took effect Dec. 4, aimed to provide those definitions, but was stopped at the hearing. Act 101 will remain in effect, but it will not contain any of the guidelines the DNR set in the emergency rule.
Supporters of the rule, including key environmental groups, said it was a simple framework for enforcing the previous legislation, aimed at improving safeguards. Opponents, including the state’s largest business group, said the rule was an unnecessary overreach.
At the heart of the debate over the rule approved by the Natural Resources Board in October was a table laying out action levels that would trigger a review of filtration procedures if certain levels of PFAS compounds were found in water after treatment. The committee also debated the use of the words “foam-contaminated materials,” which meant anything used in the process of PFAS clean up that could have been contaminated with the chemicals.
Both were axed from the rule, as well as another provision which would have required that discharges of PFAS foam into the environment to be reported to the DNR’s spill emergency hotline.
The committee listened to hours of testimony from the DNR officials in support of the rule as well as several industry groups opposed.
Darsi Foss, the administrator of the environmental management division for the DNR, said that without the action levels, Act 101 is ambiguous when it comes to how to treat water leaving facilities where PFAS-containing foam is tested.
“There’s just no standard out there for whether you’re complying or not,” she said. “Folks are probably guessing if they’re doing the right thing out there.”
Committee member Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said that the removal of the standards was “backtracking” the absolute minimum the state can do to address PFAS contaminations throughout the state.
“The bar was lowered to the point where we could trip over it and even that was too much,” he said.
Scott Manley, executive vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby group, said that the requirements in the emergency rule were far too strict and that the DNR didn’t have authority to create such rules.
He said that the action levels were “ridiculously stringent” — smaller even than the levels of PFAS that can be present in drinking water, per the Department of Health Services.
“The fact that they are so misaligned with the numbers that public health regulators have suggested for these compounds, I would argue makes them arbitrary and capricious,” he said.
Representatives from the Midwest Food Products Association and the American Chemistry Council also testified in favor of removing the provisions.
Democratic members of the committee raised concerns that the only invited speakers were members of business interest groups and the DNR and didn’t include members of the public who have been impacted by pollution, like residents of Marinette, the location of one of the largest PFAS contaminations.
Environmental groups criticized the selection of speakers.
Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, said in a statement that the selection of speakers was shameful.
“Through their last legislative act of the session, legislative Republicans have made clear who they listen to — not the people of Marinette, Milwaukee, Kewaunee and other communities impacted by PFAS pollution, but industry groups that put profits over people,” he said.
Foss said the DNR is still working to develop standards for two of the most well-known PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, in ground, surface and drinking water in the state. The DNR is also working on getting parts of the PFAS Action Plan — which was sent to Gov. Tony Evers earlier this week — instituted.
“There’s lot of things we’re working on to move the state forward in regards to PFAS,” Foss said.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals used for their water- and stain-resistant qualities in products like clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam.
The chemicals are persistent, remaining both in the environment and human body over time. Accumulation of the chemicals in the body has been linked to cancer, studies have shown, or other adverse health effects. The chemicals have also shown up in fish and deer, for which the DNR has issued advisories.
PFAS have been found in water across the state, including 52 sites of fires where PFAS-containing foam were used to put out the flames, landfills and spill sites.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.