Madison — The Natural Resources Board (NRB) voted to again draft rules that would set standards to minimize the concentration of polluting substances in groundwater.
Approval of a scope statement, on a unanimous vote at a Dec. 14 meeting, followed testimony from the DNR and nine citizens asking the state to set stricter limits on pollutants.
Known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the pollutants can be found in drinking water and are considered a health hazard.
PFAS and PFOS are known as “forever chemicals,” and are believed to remain in the environment for a very long time.
According to the DNR, PFAS “may cause reproductive effects such as decreased fertility and pregnancy-induced hypertension, development effects or delays in children including birth defects and low birth weight, increased risk of some cancers including prostate, kidney and testicular cancers, decreased antibody response to vaccines, and increased cholesterol.”
Nine citizens provided testimony, saying that the board should adopt the scope statement so that the DNR could begin the two- to three-year long process of setting standards.
Jeff Lamont, of Peshtigo, supported approval of the scope statement, saying that he lives in the groundwater PFAS plume caused by the JCI Tyco fire training center, and his family has been living on bottled water for five years.
“PFAS concentrations in our drinking water are approximately 140 parts per trillion, thousands of times higher than the EPA health advisory,” Lamont said.
Doug Oitzinger, of Marinette, recalled that the NRB refused to approve a groundwater standard for PFAS and PFOS in February.
He also recalled that Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) representative Scott Manly, who opposed the proposed restriction, said that the federal number must be the state standard. At that time the DNR was requesting a more restrictive standard, which WMC opposed.
Oitzinger said there is a new federal number (much lower than what the DNR originally proposed), .004 parts per trillion for PFAS and .02 for PFOS, which Oitzinger said means if you can detect the substances in drinking water, it is too high to consume over your lifetime.
Oitzinger pointed out the Catch-22 position that WMC and lobbyists wanted – if there is no rule then there can be no clean-up order by the state.
“One-third of Wisconsin residents get their drinking water from private wells and they are unprotected from PFAS,” Oitzinger said.
“Our children and grandchildren don’t deserve the cancers and other maladies caused by PFAS-contaminated groundwater.”
Beth Neary, a pediatrician with the Wisconsin Environmental Health Network, said that it is her understanding that “PFOS is the DDT of our generation.”
Neary said regulations will protect everyone, especially children and infants who will drink more water over a longer time period. They face more exposure to PFAS and effects such as increased rate of testicular and kidney cancer, development problems in children, and effects on the immune system.
Jim Zellmer, deputy administrator of DNR’s Environmental Management Division, told the board that this would not require private well owners to test their water for PFAS.
Zellmer said the state can help private well owners and local health departments get bottled water and take steps to replace a well or connect to a public water supply, if possible.
The standards also allow the DNR to take action if substances are in wastewater discharged into the environment.
The DNR is closely working with the EPA, which is expected to come out with a national drinking water standard soon.
Most of the questions from the NRB centered on the fact the substances are “forever” chemicals and are difficult to remove.
NRB member Dr. Frederick Prehn was concerned the public will think this fixes the problem, which he said it won’t. He asked if PFAS could be filtered from a private well.
Zellmer said yes.
Information is still being learned, but options for landowners include drilling deeper for water or installing activated carbon treatment.
NRB member Greg Kazmierski was concerned that, if adopted, this action may be overselling a “cure,” when there really isn’t one.
Zellmer admitted it is very difficult to remove PFOS from groundwater. He said this proposal will set a public health groundwater standard. People can then look at it and see if their water is safe for consumption, while the science is evolving.
Zellmer said private well owners could be eligible for well compensation costs and be reimbursed for costs to remove PFOS from their drinking water.
Prehn backed Kazmierski, saying that trying to clean it up is an action, but not a “fix.” The fix is to prevent the discharge and cleaning it up will be extremely costly.
There is technology to eliminate it from drinking water in municipalities if taxpayers are tolerant.
“This is not the magical cure – this allows us to gather more data,” Prehn said.
NRB member Bill Smith said there is a strong argument for prevention and this is one small step on a long journey.
“It is important to open that door, start the discussion and get the standards, and I am strongly in favor of moving ahead,” Smith said.
Although the board failed to adopt standards (that had been developed during the previous three years) last February, this time board members unanimously voted to approve the scope statement, which starts the process all over again.
The process will take at least three years, and Smith, along with NRB member Sharon Adams, asked for it to be expedited.