Wisconsin lawmakers OK bill to tackle forever chemicals pollution, but governor isn't on board

PFAS Pollution
Posted at 3:04 PM, Feb 22, 2024

MADISON (AP) — The Wisconsin state Assembly passed a bill Thursday that would unlock $125 million to help municipalities and landowners cope with pollution from so-called forever chemicals. But Gov. Tony Evers isn't on board.

The Senate passed the Republican-authored legislation in November. The Assembly followed suit with a 61-35 vote on Thursday, the chamber's last floor period of the two-year legislative session.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that don't easily break down in nature. They are found in a wide range of products, including cookware and stain-resistant clothing, and previously were often used in aviation fire-suppression foam. The chemicals have been linked to health problems including low birth weight, cancer and liver disease, and have been shown to make vaccines less effective.

Municipalities across Wisconsin are struggling with PFAS contamination in groundwater, including Marinette, Madison, Wausau and the town of Campbell on French Island. The waters of Green Bay also are contaminated.

The bill would create grants for cities, towns, villages, private landowners and waste disposal facilities to test for PFAS in water treatment plants and wells and mandate studies on the chemicals. The bill doesn't appropriate any money but the measure's chief sponsors, Sens. Eric Wimberger and Rob Cowles and Rep. Jeffrey Mursau, have said the dollars would come out of a $125 million PFAS trust fund established in the current state budget.

But Evers has balked at the bill largely because it contains provisions that he says would limit the state Department of Natural Resources' ability to hold polluters accountable.

Under the bill, the DNR would need landowners' permission to test their water for PFAS and couldn't take any enforcement action against landowners who spread PFAS in compliance with a license or permit.

The agency would be responsible for remediation at contaminated sites where the responsible party is unknown or can't pay for the work. And landowners who allow the DNR to remediate contaminated property at the state's expense would be immune from enforcement action.

Evers in December directed the DNR to ask the Legislature's Republican-controlled finance committee to release the $125 million trust fund to the agency but Republicans continued to push the bill as a framework to spend the money.

The governor sent Wimberger and Cowles a letter Wednesday signaling he won't sign the legislation into law. With the Assembly wrapping up Thursday, there was no time to revise the bill. Unless Evers changes his mind, the measure is dead.

Assembly Democrats accused Republicans of refusing to compromise and lamented the Legislature's inability to make any substantial headway on PFAS.

"What's more disappointing and more unfair is the people who have been waiting for years for the Legislature to get their act together," Rep. Katrina Shankland said. "How many sessions is it going to take to get something real done on PFAS? I don't know. I don't have the answer ... square one tomorrow, I guess."

Mursau countered that the DNR restrictions are necessary to ensure the agency doesn't hold landowners liable for pollution on their property that they didn't cause. Rep. Rob Swearingen pressed Evers to change his stance and sign the bill.

"We've got to stop playing these games on (the bill) and PFAS contamination," he said.