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In Rhinelander Visit, Baldwin Says PFAS Money in Infrastructure Bill Could Help City

Emily Davies/WSAW

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin believes Rhinelander could benefit from billions of federal dollars being proposed to address PFAS contamination in water.

She made that point in visiting the city on Wednesday.

Baldwin toured the wellhouse at Rhinelander’s municipal Well 7, learning how it has been offline for more than two years. It was shut off in 2019 when it was found to have high PFAS levels. Those chemicals can cause damaging health effects if ingested.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin hears from city, economic, and environmental leaders during a PFAS roundtable Wednesday in Rhinelander.

But Baldwin told city leaders they might have a chance at federal funding to address the issue.

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which the Senate has already passed, includes $10 billion for communities to tackle PFAS problems.

“There’s an emphasis on helping smaller communities that don’t have the tax base that some of our larger communities have to do things that are costly,” Baldwin said. “Additional treatment at Wells 7 and 8 is a multimillion dollar proposition. A new well in an area where there’s not PFAS in the groundwater is also above a million dollar proposition.”

The bill still needs to pass the House and be signed by President Biden.

Rhinelander City Administrator Zach Vruwink said the city has two big goals in mind.

“Two things. One of which was treatment at the suspended wells, 7 and 8, that might enable us to restore those wells to service. Those wells are currently offline, and they contribute 25 percent, roughly, to our water supply. So that’s the first ask,” Vruwink said. “The second ask is for a new well…we’re looking for federal grants to offset the cost it would take for Rhinelander to add a new well and add treatment to the existing two wells.”

Baldwin said her office has secured a commitment from the EPA regarding Rhinelander. The agency’s research and development arm will work directly with the city to find solutions to the PFAS problem. UW-Madison scientists have already been doing underground mapping at the contamination site.

Additionally, Baldwin also supports a different bill addressing PFAS.

The federal government currently has no standards defining maximum allowable concentrations of the substance in drinking water. The bill, called the PFAS Action Act, would force the EPA to develop such a standard.

“If you do not have a standard, you cannot bring enforcement actions to guarantee that people are getting safe drinking water,” Baldwin said.

Some states have their own standards. But Wisconsin is still years away from making an enforceable law.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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