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GOP lawmakers vote to create $125M fund to address PFAS contamination

Republicans on the Legislature's budget committee introduced the funding but did not spell out how it will be used

Madison resident Brad Horn collects a water sample to test for PFAS.
Madison, Wis., resident Brad Horn collects a water sample to test for PFAS on Aug. 8, 2022. His family collected the water that came out of their AquaRain brand water filter and sent the water to the Regional Water Authority in Connecticut for testing. The results came back with no detectable levels of PFAS in 17 categories and one result of “below Minimum Reporting Level but greater than the Method Detection Limit” for PFHxS. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

Members of the Legislature’s budget committee voted Thursday to create a $125 million fund for removing PFAS, a synthetic chemical tied to adverse health outcomes, from Wisconsin drinking water.

The fund was proposed and approved by an 11-4 party line vote at a hearing of the Joint Finance Committee Thursday evening, but Republicans who run the panel did not specify how the money was to be used. Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, the committee’s co-chair, said laws will be passed separately to determine how the funds are get spent.

“The bills are gonna work their way through the legislative process,” he said. “Our priority is to make sure there’s funding available to work on these things.”

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One such proposal, introduced by Republicans this week, would provide grants to communities dealing with PFAS contamination and limit the authority of state agencies to address cleanup.

Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget would have spent roughly $100 million on a similar fund, an amount less than Republicans endorsed Thursday. But GOP lawmakers removed many of the governor’s specific proposals for spending the money, including his plans for more testing and employees to investigate PFAS pollution.

During Thursday’s committee hearing, Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, said money alone isn’t helpful without guidance on how to use it.

“Until that money is actually allocated and spent on things, it doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “You can’t do it with money alone. You also have to have standards. You have to have testing. You have to have accountability.”

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of synthetic chemicals found in many household items, like nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing, and in fire retardant. They’re sometimes referred to as a “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the environment.

PFAS have been found in the soil and water of communities throughout Wisconsin, including Superior, La Crosse, Wausau, Eau Claire and Madison. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to increased risk of thyroid disease, high cholesterol levels and kidney and testicular cancer, among other health risks.

Earlier this month, Evers’ head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said he hoped the Legislature would provide more funding than Evers had earmarked for PFAS.

Following the vote, the environmental group Wisconsin Conservation Voters issued a statement praising the funding while acknowledging the challenges ahead

“Tonight’s action by the Joint Finance Committee will hopefully begin to protect our communities from these dangerous forever chemicals,” said Peter Burress, the group’s manager for government affairs. “We still have work to do to ensure we pass the legislation that allows this funding to be spent and distributed to communities equitably and efficiently.”

The funding that passed the budget committee Thursday night still needs approval by the full Legislature and the governor.