'It's really frightening': Residents at public hearing urge DNR officials to move forward with groundwater standards

·6 min read

MADISON - Nearly a dozen Wisconsin residents urged state Department of Natural Resources officials to approve groundwater standards for pollutants — including toxic "forever chemicals" — saying they were needed to protect the future health of humans and the planet.

Their testimony came in a virtual public hearing Thursday afternoon on a rule that has been years in the making.

The rule would set standards for a series of harmful substances in Wisconsin's groundwater, including a number of pesticides, metals and two of the most well-known PFAS — PFOA and PFOS.

The standard for PFOA and PFOS would be set at 20 parts per trillion within the groundwater, with a preventative action limit of 2 parts per trillion, which would trigger further testing.

Other substances included in the rule are aluminum, E. coli bacteria, boron and cobalt.

The estimated cost of compliance with the rule will be about $430,000 a year for local governments over a five-year period. That includes the cost of wastewater sampling, groundwater monitoring and the management of biosolids — or the sludge left after wastewater is treated and separated from solids.

Some businesses may be impacted by the rule, DNR documents said, but the state's economy is not anticipated to be hurt.

The groundwater rule follows on the heels of two other rules aimed at setting standards for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water and surface water, both of which are anticipated to be taken up by the Natural Resources Board — the policy-setting arm of the DNR — in the coming months. If the board approves the rules, they will be sent to the state Legislature for further review and approval.

MORE: 'We must simply follow the science': Wisconsinites urge adoption of 'forever chemical' regulations proposed by DNR

'A massive step forward' in protecting water

Thursday's testimony mostly focused on PFAS, which have been discovered in cities across the state in recent years, as testing has become more common.

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.

MORE: What are PFAS? Here's what you need to know about the emerging contaminant group known as 'forever chemicals'

The chemicals have 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.

PFAS have been found across the state in cities like La Crosse, Marinette, Peshtigo, Milwaukee, Madison, Rib Mountain and Eau Claire.

Several residents of the Marinette and Peshtigo area spoke Thursday. The area has the state's largest PFAS contamination because of the Tyco Fire Products operation in Marinette. All of them pointed out that standards like these would have protected people who have now relied on bottled water for drinking and cooking for nearly four years.

"It has been over four years since the residents learned that they had been ingesting poison every time they drank a glass of water, and every time they gave their child a glass of water to drink from their private well," said Marinette City Council member Doug Oitzinger. "The proposed groundwater standard of 20 parts per trillion is reasonable. It is well within the range of standards adopted by other states. And it is long overdue."

Kayla Furton, a member of the Peshtigo town board, said that since moving her family to Peshtigo in 2016, shortly before knowledge of the contamination was shared with the community, she has seen firsthand the impact of not having standards in place to trigger further investigation by the state.

"I have no shortage of personal anecdotes of the health impacts, firsthand financial implications to myself, my family or my community," she said. "However, these rules are about so much more than just myself or my community. We are looking at comparing human health — the literal health and future of our children — with corporate profits. If corporate profits were removed from this equation, there would be no opposition. I can see no path other than support for the proposed permanent rule changes if we are to protect the health and future of Wisconsin."

MORE: 'Forever chemicals' prompt shut down of drinking water well in the Town of Rib Mountain

Anders Hanhan, a Lawrence University student and a member of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental activist organization, said the health effects PFAS pose for people who consume them are "damning."

"We need to protect this environment because, speaking as a young person, I will be, my classmates, and the people who are my age are going to be the ones who have to grow up with the consequences of all our current actions. And it's really frightening," he said.

Rule likely to face uphill battle

While the rule received praise from those who spoke during the public hearing, it is likely to face pushback as it moves forward in the approval process to the Natural Resources Board and the Legislature.

Groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's largest business lobby; the American Forest and Paper Association; the Midwest Food Products Association; the Water Quality Coalition; and the Wisconsin Rural Water Association have registered in opposition to other standards for PFAS, and are likely to do the same for the groundwater standards.

MORE: Water utility groups ask DNR to halt standards for 'forever chemicals' in drinking water, wait for regulations from federal government

Most of the pushback has hinged on the fact that federal standards for PFAS in drinking water are in the works, but there are no federal standards for groundwater, which is the source of drinking water for a large number of Wisconsinites.

But residents speaking Thursday hope that legislators will look past the pushback, and help to ensure that contamination is no longer permitted to go for years unnoticed.

"At the time when I got involved in this, we were giving testimony for some of the legislation that we were trying to introduce, and I heard some of our lawmakers make a statement, 'Oh, this is only an isolated issue,'" said Peshtigo resident Jeff Lamont. "Well, today, there are over 90 PFAS-contaminated sites throughout the state. I guess this is no longer an isolated issue, is it?"

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

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin residents urge DNR to move forward on groundwater standards

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