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GOP Senators circulate PFAS groundwater standards bill while making last push on cleanup measure

by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
February 16, 2024

Republican Sens. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) and Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) are making a final effort to get their bill aimed at cleaning up PFAS contamination across the state signed by Gov. Tony Evers. At the same time, the pair has begun circulating a bill that would allow the DNR to continue moving forward with creating standards for the amount of the chemicals that are allowable in the state’s groundwater. 

As the legislative session races to an end, Cowles and Wimberger sent a letter to Evers urging him to sign their PFAS remediation bill, which is the mechanism through which $125 million in funding set aside in the state budget for PFAS cleanup would be spent. When the bill was introduced last year, it was met with cautious optimism from clean water advocates. After months of negotiations and debate, however, Democrats and conservation groups have opposed the bill on the grounds that provisions aimed at protecting “innocent landowners” would actually let polluters escape consequences and that limits on the Department of Natural Resources in the proposal would restrict the DNR’s  ability to address contamination. 

“As SB312 approaches the finish line in the legislature and then to your desk for enactment, we hope to reemphasize its importance for Wisconsin that we discussed in November,” the letter states. “The bill addresses a reality that truly addressing PFAS pollution requires both funding and liability reform. 

The bill would create a grant program that would provide funds to people whose properties are contaminated by PFAS. Republicans say current law can cause innocent landowners to be penalized by the DNR because a nearby plume of contamination can migrate onto their property, which technically makes them emitters of contamination. Opponents to the legislation say the bill defines innocent landowner so broadly that it would apply to the polluters themselves, allowing them to get off the hook for their pollution. Republicans insist the goal is to prevent landowners from losing money and ultimately abandoning their property, leaving vacant brownfields that can’t be developed without significant remediation costs.  

“Getting clean drinking water to brownfields that innocent landowners abandon due to legal structures helps no one,” the letter continues. “We have an opportunity now to help Wisconsinites with their health concerns and the environment, and do it without forcing them to choose personal economic ruin in the process.”

Democrats and conservation groups have said restrictive provisions in the bill make it too high a price to pay for the $125 million — which clean water advocates say will not be enough to address the whole problem — while adding that what the state really needs is protections for groundwater. Millions of Wisconsinites get their drinking water from groundwater through private wells. The two senators said in their letter to Evers that the two efforts are mutually exclusive. 

The bill has passed the Senate but has not passed the Assembly. 

For years, the DNR has been working to create a rule establishing groundwater standards, however late last  year, the process was halted because an economic impact analysis of the rule determined that its cost would be more than $23 million. A state law signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, known as the REINS Act, requires rulemaking to stop whenever a rule’s estimated cost is more than $10 million. The bill proposed by Cowles and Wimberger would allow the rulemaking to continue despite the cost. 

“The costs of the groundwater standards could be significant,” the pair said in the bill’s co-sponsorship memo. “However, the benefits are substantial by finally stopping the spreading of biosolids contaminated by PFAS which leads to rural property values tanking and the potential for millions in remedial costs down the line. Additional benefits come from reduced or avoided health implications from the consumption of high levels of PFAS. Those financial costs and benefits were recognized nearly six years ago when this rulemaking process began, and remain true today.”

The pair notes that the bill “does not exempt the Legislature’s final review of the proposed standards.” 

In December, Evers called on the Legislature to release the $125 million in funds to be used for the DNR’s already existing PFAS programs. He also requested that they move forward a bill on the groundwater standards. Cowles and Wimberger said they were frustrated that Evers introduced this topic into the debate so late in the discussions. But Peg Scheaffer, a spokesperson for Midwest Environmental Advocates, says it now seems too late for the bill to be enacted. 

“While we support the bill, we wish it had been introduced sooner,” Scheaffer says. “Gov. Evers called on the Legislature back in December to introduce legislation that would allow the process of setting PFAS groundwater standards to move forward. This bill does that, but there’s very little time left in this legislative session. It’s not clear how the bill would make it across the finish line at this point.”

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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