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Wisconsin Republicans vote to spend $125 million to combat PFAS pollution, but not right away

Chris Anton - stock.adobe.com

Wisconsin Republicans voted Thursday to put $125 million aside to combat pollution from so-called forever chemicals, but delayed a decision on how exactly to spend the money.

The influx of money to deal with PFAS pollution comes after Republicans for years have declined to spend as much on water pollution as Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has called for. But the Republican spending this year would exceed the $107 million that Evers proposed to spend on additional statewide water testing, investigation, mitigation, new positions and grants.

Allocating money to fight PFAS, while eliminating testing for it and new positions to work on the pollution, doesn't "make a bit of damn sense,” Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee said.

Republicans heralded the $125 million, calling it a historic investment in the fight against PFAS pollution.

“The Legislature is taking this problem very seriously,” committee co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein said.

There will be follow-up legislation to spell out how the money will be spent, said Rep. Mark Born, co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.

“We need to give ourselves time to find the right solutions,” Republican Sen. Eric Wimberger of Green Bay said at a news conference.

Johnson called the funding “pretty significant,” but said more should have been done sooner.

“We don’t get to sit here and act like we’re doing the Lord’s work when our constituents and their children are being harmed every single day,” she said. “We should be ashamed that we did not address these issues earlier.”

Democrats also faulted Republicans for not specifying what the $125 million should be spent on, saying they feared it would sit unused or at least delay action.

“Meanwhile, our communities continue to struggle with this significant problem,” Democratic Sen. Kelda Roys of Madison said.

The committee approved the spending with all Republicans in support and Democrats opposed. The committee is working to crate the two-year spending plan, which must next be approved by the Senate and Assembly and then signed by Evers.

The committee is expected to complete its work next month. The budget takes effect in July.

Democrats, including Evers, have called for enacting tough standards about acceptable levels of PFAS in the water, moves that have met resistance from Republicans and the state's business community.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that don’t easily break down in nature. They’re found in a wide range of products, including cookware, firefighting foam and stain-resistant clothing. 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 their groundwater, including Marinette, Madison, Wausau and the town of Campbell on French Island. The waters of Green Bay also are contaminated. The state Department of Natural Resources has issued an advisory warning people to limit their consumption of fish from the bay of Green Bay as well as from portions of the Peshtigo, Oconto and Menominee rivers due to PFAS contamination.

Republicans have passed bills in recent years restricting the use of firefighting foam that contains PFAS, but have resisted doing anything more substantial amid concerns from industry and wastewater treatment operators that clean-up and filtration efforts and new well construction would cost tens of millions of dollars.

The Evers' administration adopted regulations last year establishing limits on PFAS in surface and drinking water. Conservatives on the Department of Natural Resources' policy board blocked a proposal to limit the chemicals in well water, however.

Evers' administration has since relaunched an attempt to write standards for PFAS in well water. The governor's budget lays out a multipronged approach for dealing with the chemicals as well.

Republicans previously stripped language from Evers' budget that called for restricting PFAS levels in state waters and air and requiring the DNR to create rules on how to determine financial liability for PFAS contamination.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul sued about 20 companies last year alleging their products contaminated the environment with PFAS. Those cases are still pending.

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