Wisconsin Leads 22-State Coalition Supporting Federal Standards For PFAS In Drinking Water

So-Called 'Forever Chemicals' Pose Health, Environmental Risks

treated wastewater
An Orange County Water District worker draws a sample of water produced by the groundwater replenishment system, which purifies treated wastewater for release into the groundwater basin in Fountain Valley, Calif., on Friday, June 26, 2015. Amy Taxin/AP Photo

Attorney General Josh Kaul announced Wednesday that Wisconsin is leading a coalition of 22 states in supporting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s preliminary decision to regulate so-called “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in drinking water.

Attorneys general from other Midwest states, including Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa, were among those who submitted comments to the federal agency on Wednesday.

Found in everyday products, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS have raised concern because they don’t break down easily in the environment, and they’ve been linked to an increased risk of some cancers.

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In comments filed Wednesday, Kaul said the states support the EPA’s preliminary finding to regulate the two most widely studied PFAS chemicals: PFOA and PFOS.

“Right now, the EPA is only proposing to regulate two compounds even though there are a number of compounds that are in this family, and there’s reason to believe that those other compounds are dangerous for human health as well,” said Kaul.

As a result, he said states are urging the agency to regulate more PFAS substances and consider regulating PFAS as a class of chemicals.

Kaul said the 22 states are also asking the EPA to set more restrictive standards for regulating PFOA and PFOS in drinking water “to reflect current science and protect human health.” The agency currently has a federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

However, groups like the Wisconsin Water Alliance and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce oppose the call for more stringent standards, fearing they may cripple the state’s economy.

“It clearly ignores the tremendous cost that would be imposed on homeowners and water ratepayers and the loss of jobs that would result in looking at even more stringent standards for regulating these types of compounds,” said Scott Manley, executive vice president of government relations for WMC.

Eric Uram, chair of the Sierra Club’s national toxics committee, argues a balance can be struck between public and economic health.

“There are jobs that would be created in the control of pollution in that regard,” said Uram. “There’s technology that would need to be developed.”

WMC’s Manley said they’d like to see standards that minimize cost and maximize protection, adding any regulations should be based on science. Sierra Club’s Uram noted what’s considered safe levels of chemicals like PFOA have dropped from 400 parts per trillion a decade ago as research has improved awareness of the risks.

Kaul noted the federal Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services drafted minimal risk levels in 2018 at which the chemicals could be potentially hazardous to human health. He said the agency’s levels were “significantly lower” than what EPA used to determine its advisory level in 2016.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services recommended a groundwater enforcement standard of 20 parts per trillion last June. Gov. Tony Evers directed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to address PFAS contamination in August of last year. The DNR received approval in January to begin developing standards for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, surface water and groundwater earlier. The process could take up to 30 months before any standards are approved and put in place.

State regulators have identified more than 30 sites contaminated with PFAS in Wisconsin, including in the Marinette and Peshtigo area. The region is the site of an ongoing investigation into contamination stemming from Tyco Fire Products’ fire training facility in Marinette.

The DNR has been working with Tyco and Johnson Controls International (JCI) to clean up pollution in the area. The agency referred Johnson Controls to the Wisconsin Department of Justice last year for failing to disclose release of chemicals from its site when first discovered in 2013. Company officials have said they had no indication that contamination had spread off-site.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, has been working with lawmakers on bills to address PFAS contamination. He said he’s encouraged the DNR is creating “science-based” standards to regulate PFAS chemicals in the absence of federal standards.

“While AG Kaul is rightly calling for action at the federal level, he still has DNR’s JCI referral for legal action on his desk, and it has been there for over a year,” said Nygren in a statement. “I supported this referral at the time and hope that the AG is making meaningful progress on DNR’s referral for legal action.”

Kaul said he could not share any details on the matter.

“We’re going to make sure that we take this incredibly seriously and that if we do move forward with legal action that we’re going to do so effectively and ultimately in a way that is going to get justice in this case for the people who live in the area,” said Kaul. “That includes making sure that their water is safe.”

Without a federal standard, he noted residents of other states may continue to be exposed to unsafe levels of the chemicals. Kaul said states are urging the EPA to issue safe drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS as soon as possible and no later than 18 months after a final determination has been made to regulate the chemicals.