Wisconsin Gov. Evers issues order to curb PFAS contamination

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has signed an executive order to curb contamination from chemicals in firefighting foam, non-stick cookware and fast-food wrappers, his office announced Friday.

Evers signed the mandate Thursday. The order calls on the state departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to work together to create a website on the chemicals known as PFAS, collaborate with municipalities and wastewater treatment plants to identify PFAS sources and consider PFAS when developing fish and wildlife consumption advisories.

The DNR will have to create a council to develop a PFAS action plan for the state and evaluate the risk PFAS pose to public health. The agency already has a PFAS technical advisory group that examines the chemicals' impact on the state but it doesn't have an appointed membership. Anyone can attend the group's meetings.

The DNR also must develop regulatory standards for the chemicals. Evers' administration in June proposed a new PFAS enforcement standard of 20 parts per trillion, far below the 70 parts per trillion federal standard. The DNR is currently gathering public input on the standards. DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye said the executive order allows the department to propose rules implementing the new standards.

The order calls on the DNR and DATCP to modify the Voluntary Party Liability Exemption law "to protect Wisconsin taxpayers from uncertain and costly liability associated with PFAS." Hoye didn't immediately respond to an email inquiring about what specific changes to the law Evers wants and how the agencies could revise the statutes without the Legislature's involvement.

The law absolves people, businesses or governments that voluntarily remove contaminants from their properties from future liability for historic pollution. The DNR last year issued an interim decision that the liability exemption doesn't cover PFAS contamination unless investigators specifically tested for the chemicals.

Environmental groups praised the order. Both the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin called the order a key step toward controlling PFAS in Wisconsin.

"PFAS is a public health and environmental challenge that we're only beginning to fully understand," Carly Michiels, Clean Wisconsin's government relations director, said in a statement.

PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used around the world since the 1940s in a variety of non-stick products. The chemicals don't break down and can accumulate over time in drinking water, living organisms and food.

The chemicals can affect growth, learning, children's behavior and women's fertility as well as increase cholesterol levels and increase the risk of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website.

According to Clean Wisconsin, more than 18 investigations in PFAS pollution are underway in Wisconsin. Marinette has one of the highest known rates of PFAS pollution in the state; drinking water there has been found to have tested as high as 1,900 parts per trillion, according to the group.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Friday that sampling conducted in 2017 and 2018 shows PFAS in Milwaukee's drinking water system, which serves about 865,000 people in Milwaukee and 16 other communities.

Business groups including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce have criticized the 20 parts per trillion standard, saying the risk to human health isn't established and the technology to eliminate the chemicals from groundwater is extremely expensive and underdeveloped.

"We are deeply concerned that such a standard could devastate Wisconsin's economy and significantly raise the cost of residential water," the Water Quality Coalition wrote in a letter to the state Department of Health Services in July. The coalition includes WMC, the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance and the Wisconsin Paper Council, which advocates for the state's paper-making industry. "(The standards) would require municipal utilities, industrial facilities, and energy producers, to reach near-zero discharge levels of compounds that are pre-existing in groundwater."

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