The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday released proposed limits for harmful "forever chemicals" in drinking water to the lowest levels they can be measured, saying it will save thousands of lives and drastically reduce PFAS-related illnesses.
"EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is informed by the best available science, and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a news release. "This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants."
The proposed limits are less stringent than new health advisory levels for four PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, released last June by the EPA.
In the meantime, Wisconsin's drinking water standard for PFAS hasn't changed, and the agency recommends public water supplies take voluntary steps to limit the chemicals in drinking water at or above state health advisory levels. Elmore said they'll work with state health officials on any updates to health guidance as they work to provide the best advice to people with PFAS in their water.
The limits are the first proposed standards for the chemicals in drinking water since industry first alerted the EPA to the health hazards of PFAS nearly 25 years ago. Documents show companies like 3M knew PFAS could be toxic and posed health risks as far back as the 1960s.
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The Wisconsin Chapter of the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin called the EPA's proposal a significant step in addressing PFAS contamination.
"These proposed limits, if they are finalized, will mean safer drinking water," Scott Laeser, water program director for Clean Wisconsin, told WPR. "I think anyone who has been paying attention to the science that's been coming out lately about the health risks that PFAS poses expected standards along these lines."
In Wisconsin, PFAS have been detected in more than 50 communities from small towns like Peshtigo and Campbell to larger cities like Eau Claire, Wausau and Madison. The DNR is actively investigating around 100 sites for PFAS pollution, according to its website tracking environmental cleanups.
Industry groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, or WMC, supported the state’s drinking water standard for PFAS based on the EPA’s previous health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion released in 2016. Even so, they’ve questioned the science behind more restrictive limits on the chemicals. State industry groups have also argued inconsistent state, federal and international standards demonstrate a lack of consensus on appropriate limits for the chemicals. Craig Summerfield, WMC's environmental and energy policy director, said they're carefully reviewing the proposed standards.
"Unfortunately, the proposal appears to go far beyond any reasonable criteria for regulating PFAS," Summerfield said in a statement. "For example, they are completely out of line with the draft guidelines of 100 ppt for PFOA and PFOS from the World Health Organization. WMC continues to support standards for PFAS that are reasonable, cost-effective and based on the latest peer-reviewed science."
Both industry and water groups have highlighted concerns over the cost of complying with more stringent standards. The American Water Works Association estimates treatment of PFAS in drinking water could cost up to $38 billion. In small communities, advocates for rural Wisconsin water systems have said the cost to replace a contaminated well may run up to $2 million.
Chris Groh, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Water Association, said his members will need financial assistance to comply with the EPA's proposal if passed.
"This limit is going to cost them money from start to finish in the process: engineering, testing, monitoring, treatment, treatment disposal," Groh said.
In December, the Natural Resources Board voted unanimously to allow Wisconsin environmental regulators to once again begin crafting health-based standards for PFAS in groundwater. The DNR has said it would take proposed limits from the EPA into account when developing standards.
President Joe Biden's administration is devoting $10 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law to address emerging contaminants like PFAS. Gov. Tony Evers also recently proposed more than $100 million in the next two-year state budget to address PFAS.
Evers' plan would support increased testing and monitoring, funding to provide temporary drinking water to affected households and 11 new positions at the DNR to tackle the chemicals. Republican lawmakers like Sen. Rob Cowles of Green Bay and Sen. Mary Felzkowski from Irma have indicated they may be willing to spend money on PFAS under the budget to address the chemicals. Staff for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the GOP legislative leaders were not immediately available for comment Tuesday on the EPA's proposal.