Lawmakers announce bill to combat extensive ‘forever chemical’ contamination in Wisconsin

Gov. Tony Evers addresses reporters on April 24, 2021, about the CLEAR Act, which aims to combat PFAS in Wisconsin.

LA CROSSE – Democratic lawmakers are hoping to give communities across Wisconsin a way to fight back against the “forever chemicals” in the water through a new bill aimed at keeping the state’s waters clean. 

The new legislation, called the CLEAR Act, would include a municipal grant program to help hard-hit communities like French Island, as well as county well-testing programs, funds to collect and dispose of PFAS-containing firefighting foam, money for the testing of public water supplies, standards for the chemicals in the ground, surface and drinking water, and money for communities to conduct mitigation efforts. 

Rep. Samba Baldeh, D-Madison; Sen. Brad Pfaff, D- La Crosse; Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Wisconsin; Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse; and Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska; gathered alongside Gov. Tony Evers to announce the bill. The news conference was held at the F.J. Robers Library on French Island, which recently had a drinking water well test above the recommended standard for the chemicals. 

“The folks here on French Island and in the La Crosse area know all too well the dangers of PFAS and the surprise of waking up to find that the water that’s coming from your tap isn’t as safe as you thought,” Evers said. 

The lawmakers are hopeful the legislation will be taken up this year, as the extent of PFAS contamination has become more apparent across the state.

“This legislation, this bill gives our state and the local communities within it, the tools that they need to start addressing this crisis right now,” Agard said.

The CLEAR Act was also introduced in 2019 and was supported by Republican Rep. John Nygren of Marinette but was never given a hearing. Nygren has since left the Legislature. This latest attempt faces uncertain prospects in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family 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 family includes 5,000 compounds, which are persistent, remaining both in the environment and human body over time.  

The chemicals can have devastating effects. They’ve been linked to types of kidney and testicular cancers, lower birth weights, harm to immune and reproductive systems, altered hormone regulation and altered thyroid hormones. The chemicals enter the human body largely through drinking water.

French Island contamination

French Island, part of the Town of Campbell outside La Crosse, is one of the largest PFAS contaminations in the state, out of 50 known sites. 

Town Supervisor Lee Donahue said finding out the news of the contamination in the community late last year was “horrific,” and the impact on local families has been undeniable. 

“We are all concerned about the safety of our drinking water, we are all concerned about our property values, we are all concerned about a long-term solution. We’re concerned about how long this goes on because we need a permanent solution,” she said. “The uncertainty and delay have affected our quality of life in a town, which was the best place to live.”

She said her son used to draw upon the plentiful water resources, learning about fish and frogs and did his Eagle Scout project on the island, allowing other children to track the development and hibernation of frogs.

“That’s what French Island was known for, its close connection to nature,” she said. “But now we are known for contaminated water, which threatens the health and safety of all of our residents.”

The chemicals being found in drinking water across the island are likely the result of the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam at the La Crosse Regional Airport for decades. PFAS were first detected on the island in 2014 in La Crosse municipal wells, and testing of private wells began late last year. 

The airport inhabits the northern portion of the island, while the Town of Campbell inhabits the southern portion. French Island is across the Black River from the city and is home to about 4,300 residents. There are 1,200 private wells on the island. 

The state Department of Natural Resources last month announced it would be taking over a portion of the investigation on French Island, outside the portion where the City of La Crosse is already paying for testing and bottled water for residents. The DNR made bottled water available to anyone on the island with a detectable amount of PFAS in their drinking well. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura