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WI Natural Resources Board Approves New Standards for 'Forever Chemicals'

Aftermath of tanker fire accident on I-95 in Bensalem, Pennsylvania
Jana Shea/Jana - stock.adobe.com
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Bensalem, Pennsylvania, USA - February 7, 2019; Firefighting foam remains on the ground surface following a tanker truck accident. Aqueous film forming foam AFFF used to fight flammable liquid fires can contain sodium alkyl sulfate, fluorotelomers, perfluorooctanoic acid PFOA or perflourooctanesulfonic acid PFOS.

Wisconsin's Natural Resources Board has approved new contamination standards for Perfluorinated and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS), a family of chemicals found in some the state waters.

The board approved a drinking-water standard of 70 parts per trillion for two of the most common PFAS chemicals Wednesday, a significantly higher cap than the 20 parts per trillion initially recommended by the Department of Natural Resources.

Lee Donahue, a supervisor for the Town of Campbell, told the board extensive PFAS contamination has had life-changing effects on residents of her western Wisconsin town.

"It's like a ticking time bomb, you know," Donahue stated. "It's in your body, you can't get it out, you seek an alternative safe drinking-water source, and you pray for enforceable water standards."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the chemicals have been linked to a number of adverse health effects, but research into the exact health outcomes of PFAS exposure is ongoing. Some business lobbying groups opposed the more stringent DNR guidelines for the chemicals, arguing they did not adequately take into account the financial impacts such rules would have for businesses and manufacturers.

The Department of Natural Resources' initial 20-parts-per-trillion proposal was rejected as board members believed the cost to enforce it, an estimated $5.6 million for the first year alone, would be too high.

Scott Manley, executive vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, also argued the DNR lacks the specific authority to regulate PFAS.

"It's clear that DNR staff believe they have broad authority to regulate PFAS however they deem fit," Manley contended. "But the agency has a long history of misinterpreting its own authority, including its authority to regulate PFAS substances."

PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals," will essentially never break down under normal environmental conditions. They're a common material found in everything from firefighting foam to nonstick cookware. The new PFAS standards, which fall in line with federal recommendations established under the Obama EPA, still need legislative approval.

Born and raised in Indiana, Jonah Chester has been covering issues in Wisconsin for the past several years. He previously worked at WORT 89.9 FM in Madison, where he earned awards for his coverage of everything from law enforcement and policing to the 2020 presidential election.
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