After more than two years, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Council is set to adopt proposed standards to regulate “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in drinking water, surface water and groundwater later this month.
Federal regulators have been aware of the health risks of PFAS for more than two decades. Even so, the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to develop standards for chemicals. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is proposing strict standards that the agency says will protect public health and the environment, warning that federal standards are still years away.
Wisconsin environmental groups and residents affected by PFAS are at odds with water and industry groups over the DNR’s proposed regulations. Even so, there appears to be agreement that chemicals should be regulated, said David Strifling, director of the Water Law and Policy Initiative at Marquette University School of Law. .
“I think there’s general agreement that they should be regulated, that we don’t want to ingest them and distribute them in the environment, but there’s a lot of controversy about what to do. “, Strifling said.
Here’s a rundown of what people should know about PFAS and the proposed standards that will be considered by the DNR’s Policy Development Board on Wednesday.
WHAT IS PFAS?
PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals found in fire-fighting foam and everyday products such as nonstick cookware and stain-resistant clothing.
WHERE DOES PFAS COME FROM?
PFAS was first invented in the 1930s, and the chemicals have been used by industry since the 1940s. Companies like Delaware-based DuPont and Minneapolis-based 3M have made products using it. using PFAS chemicals, including the two most studied substances, PFOA and PFOS.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF PFAS?
Chemicals are of concern because they do not break down easily in the environment. Multiple studies of people living and working in areas with high levels of PFOA have shown links to serious health effects, including increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease and fertility problems.
The chemicals have also been linked to a reduced response to vaccines.
WHERE WAS PFAS FOUND IN WISCONSIN?
As awareness of PFAS has increased, the extent of contamination has been more widely documented. Last fall, the DNR said regulators were tackling PFAS pollution at more than 50 sites in 25 communities.
The chemicals have affected residents of communities large and small, contaminating public and private wells.
Residents of Wisconsin towns such as Peshtigo and Campbell have been forced to rely on bottled water due to PFAS contamination of private wells from the use of fire-fighting foam containing the chemicals. Cities like Madison, Eau Claire and La Crosse have closed wells due to concerning levels of chemicals in municipal wells. Wausau is the most recent city to report high levels of chemicals in all of its city wells.
WHAT STANDARDS ARE PROPOSED BY MNR?
Governor Tony Evers directed the agency to develop standards for dealing with PFAS in an executive order issued in August 2019. The Natural Resources Council approved the development of these standards in January of 2019. next year.
The DNR offers an individual and combined standard of 20 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, as recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Neighboring states have proposed or implemented similar or more restrictive drinking water standards for PFAS, including Illinois and Michigan.
Meanwhile, the EPA announced a sweeping plan last fall to set federal standards for drinking water. The agency currently has set a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.
“The EPA is looking at that number and the ongoing regulations, so I’m not sure exactly where it’s going to settle,” Strifling said. “But, again, it’s in this area of scientific disagreement between opponents and proponents of this set of rules: where should we set this number?”
State regulators are also proposing a standard of 20 parts per trillion for the two chemicals in groundwater, as well as a preventative action limit of 2 parts per trillion. This level is used to trigger actions to prevent further contamination.
In surface waters, the agency proposes a standard of 8 parts per trillion for PFOS in all waters with limited exceptions. For PFOA, the DNR recommends a standard of 20 parts per trillion in waters considered public water supplies and 95 parts per trillion for all other surface waters.
WHO WANTS STATE PFAS REGULATIONS AND WHO DOESN’T?
Water and industry groups urged the DNR to wait for federal standards for drinking water rather than proposing statewide limits on PFAS. These groups include the Wisconsin Rural Water Association, the Water Division of the Municipal Environmental Group, the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the Wisconsin Paper Council, the American Chemistry Council, and the Midwest Food Products Association.
“Manufacturers who are multi-jurisdictional don’t want to deal with one standard in Minnesota, and another in Wisconsin, and another in Connecticut, and so on.” Strifling said.
Residents of PFAS-polluted communities and environmental groups have submitted comments indicating that state standards are absolutely necessary to protect public health and the environment. These groups include Midwest Environmental Advocates, Clean Wisconsin, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Sierra Club of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Conservation Voters, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.
“Some of the environmental and public health advocates would tell you the numbers aren’t strict enough (and) they should be lower,” Strifling said.
WHY IS THE DNR PROPOSING PFAS STANDARDS NOW?
The agency has 30 months to develop environmental regulations through the state regulatory process. Since the agency launched the effort two years ago, time is running out.
“If the NRB refuses to approve the rule, it seems to me that there is a very real likelihood that (the) DNR will have to abandon this effort and return to square one,” Strifling said.
Last fall, the agency said it was dropping proposed nitrate standards in areas vulnerable to groundwater contamination because the DNR was running out of time.
HOW MUCH WOULD REGULATING PFAS COST?
For drinking water, the DNR predicts that it would cost businesses and local governments about $5.6 million in the first year and an average of $3.9 million per year in subsequent years.
Environmental regulators say nine systems will likely exceed those standards and use treatment systems that could be funded through the state’s clean water loan program. The nine systems are expected to cost $35.2 million over two decades, plus maintenance costs of nearly $2 million per year.
For groundwater, MNR expects the average cost of compliance to be approximately $2.6 million per year. For surface water, the agency estimates the maximum cost to meet the standard each year would be about $4.8 million.
Regulators expect 48 small businesses including paper companies, metal finishers and chemical makers to see about $2.1 million each year in additional costs.
Strifling said the cost of the proposed standards could prove a barrier to their adoption after lawmakers required legislative approval for regulations exceeding more than $10 million over a two-year period under the REINS Act. .
“That’s another objection here, that (the) DNR is underestimating the cost of this,” Strifling said.
MNR stated in its economic impact analyzes that the cost of implementing the standards would be less than $10 million over a two-year period.
TO WHAT EXTENT COULD PFAS REGULATION SAVE THE STATE?
The DNR does not have state-specific health data. Even so, the agency used two reports to estimate that Wisconsin could save hundreds of millions of dollars in avoided health care costs that stem from low birth weight and hypertension by reducing exposure. to PFOA. The agency also said the regulations would likely limit any loss of land value or recreational income in areas affected by the contamination.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The Wisconsin Natural Resources Council will discuss the proposed standards at its meeting on Wednesday. If the NRB approves the agency’s PFAS standards, the rules would require approval from the Republican-controlled legislature. The standards are likely to face an uphill battle from Republican lawmakers. GOP lawmakers previously weakened PFAS regulations and removed most Evers funding proposals to fight PFAS from the budget.