Wisconsin DNR relaunches effort to limit PFAS in groundwater | Science & Environment

Armed with new data on potential health impacts, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is again attempting to regulate toxic “forever chemicals” in the state’s largest source of drinking water.

The DNR is proposing to set groundwater standards for four fluorinated compounds collectively known as PFAS that the Environmental Protection Agency has said are harmful at levels too low to detect with current technology.

The synthetic chemicals, which do not break down naturally, have been linked to health problems including low birth weight, cancer, and liver disease.

The sites both drain into Starkweather Creek, which flows into Lake Monona, where health officials have warned anglers to limit consumption of fish. 

Gov. Tony Evers signed a scope statement last week that proposes adding PFOS, PFOA, PFBS and GenX chemicals to the list of contaminants under the state’s groundwater law.

The state has not updated that list in more than a decade.

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The scope statement sets parameters for the DNR to draft a rule, a process that typically takes 30 months and requires approval of the governor, the Natural Resources Board and the Legislature.

Based on recommendations of state toxicologists, the DNR launched a similar rulemaking effort in 2019 for two of those compounds, PFOA and PFOS, along with more than a dozen other contaminants. But earlier this year conservatives on the Natural Resources Board voted to kill the regulations before they could be sent to lawmakers for approval.

The Environmental Protection Agency has since cautioned that the two compounds — PFOA and PFOS — pose a threat at concentrations thousands of times lower than the standards the board rejected in February.

“That’s why we’re doing this,” said Jim Zellmer, deputy administrator of the DNR’s environmental management division. “We’re following the groundwater law.”

The Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council’s annual report to the Legislature faults the natural resources policy board for failure to enact new groundwater standards recommended by state health experts.

That law requires the DNR to update the list of contaminants based on new information, although that has not occurred since 2011.

Zellmer said the DNR plans to go before the board in October to request approval of the scope statement or to hold a public hearing on the scope statement if requested by the heads of the legislature’s rules committee.

While the scoping statement does not specify numeric limits for the compounds, the EPA’s proposed health advisory guidelines released in June are significantly lower than the 20 parts per trillion combined threshold that the state Department of Health Services recommended in 2018.

After rejecting groundwater standards, the board voted 6-1 to reject the 20 ppt standard for public drinking water and instead adopted the EPA’s 2016 health guideline of 70 ppt.

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In June the EPA said there are lifetime health risks from drinking water with PFOS concentrations of 0.02 ppt and PFOA concentrations of just 0.004 ppt.

Midwest Environmental Advocates then petitioned the DNR to restart the rulemaking process on behalf of the League of Women Voters and a group of northern Wisconsin residents, arguing only the state can protect groundwater, which feeds cold-water streams and lakes, is used to irrigate crops and is the primary source of drinking water for nearly ¾ of Wisconsin residents.

According to the scoping statement, “Without numerical health-based standards, groundwater regulatory programs will not protect the public health of Wisconsin residents.”

The county is asking the courts to strike testing requirements in the permit for stormwater that drains from the airport into Lake Monona through Starkweather Creek, where PFAS contamination has made fish unsafe to eat.

PFAS has contaminated groundwater in communities across Wisconsin, including Marinette, Wausau, La Crosse and Madison, where city leaders recently approved spending $450,000 on a treatment system for one East Side well.

Zellmer said he is optimistic this rule will be approved.

“PFAS is here in the state,” he said. “It is being detected in our groundwater and our public water supplies and we need to set standards.”

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