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EPA sets new standards for PFAS chemicals in public drinking water, Wisconsin will need to adjust


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday its enforcement rules for PFAS or “forever chemicals”.

The EPA’s standard is much stricter than Wisconsin’s current standards.

PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals used in a wide variety of products ranging from firefighting foam to non-stick cookware.

The chemicals do not break down easily and have seeped into water supplies across the country. One study estimates PFAS chemicals are found in nearly half the nation’s tap water.

Locally, elevated levels have been found in private wells in the Town of Stella in Oneida County, the City of Rhinelander’s public wells, and the water supply for Pine River School for Young Learners in the Merrill Area Public Schools district.

Those are all places that PFAS in drinking water have tested above the state level of 70 parts per trillion [ppt].

The new EPA puts the enforceable standard for PFOA and PFOS, the two most well-known PFAS chemicals, at 4 parts per trillion with a goal of having them at 0 parts per trillion. Additionally, the rule calls for a maximum of 10 ppt individually for PFNA, PFHxS and GenX. There’s also a Maximum Contaminant Level at a hazard index of 1 when a combination of PFNA, PFHxS, GenX and PFBS is present.

Wisconsin started requiring municipalities to test for PFAS chemicals in the last couple of years.

In a news release following the EPA’s announcement, the DNR said of Wisconsin’s nearly 2,000 public water systems, approximately 95% have PFAS levels below the EPA’s standards.

“Overall, Wisconsin’s public water systems are well positioned to comply with the EPA’s enforceable standards,” said Steve Elmore, Director of the DNR’s Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater, in a statement. “The DNR set enforceable standards for two types of PFAS in public drinking water in 2022. Over the last year, public water systems throughout Wisconsin have sampled at least once for these and other PFAS.”  

According to DNR data, there are some local municipalities that have PFAS levels fall below the state’s 70 ppt level but above the EPA’s 4 ppt.

Tomahawk Waterworks samples from February 12, 2024 show a PFOA level of 21 ppt. Rhinelander Water and Wastewater samples from June 7, 2023 show a PFOA level of 6.3 ppt. Both also had PFOS levels around 4 ppt.

The DNR says the specific actions taken by any public water system will depend on their circumstances and could include treating water to remove PFAS or finding a different water source.

The DNR’s 70 ppt standard is in place until the agency completes rulemaking to comply with EPA’s drinking water standards. The process could take up to three years. The EPA rule gives municipalities five years to address their PFAS problems.

While this rulemaking process is underway, the DNR says it will work with PFAS-impacted public water systems on potential actions to reduce contamination in water provided to the community.  

It’s also important to note this only affects public water systems, the rules do not apply to private wells.

Removing PFAS from drinking water will also be costly.

The EPA also announced Wednesday that nearly $1 billion in newly available funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will be coming to impacted communities to help build treatment systems that remove PFAS from drinking water.

Wisconsin set aside $125 million in the state budget to help communities address PFAS, but Gov. Evers recently vetoed a Republican-authored bill that would have released the funds saying it’s not good enough.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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