Republican state lawmakers have repealed several key provisions from an emergency rule meant to regulate contamination of PFAS, a toxic family of forever chemicals, from firefighting foam.
Republican lawmakers argue the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is overstepping its authority. Democrats on the other side of the aisle say it’s essentially gutting the rule altogether.
PFAS are found in a variety of consumer goods as well as industrial uses. They’ve been linked to a bevvy of negative health effects, including increased risk of cancer, low birth weights, hormone disruption and liver and kidney problems.
Back in February, a state bill aimed at addressing PFAS in firefighting foam enjoyed bipartisan support. But now the issue of enforcement has split lawmakers down party lines.
Last Friday, a Republican-controlled administrative rules committee voted 6 to 4 to remove certain language and a table of contamination levels from the emergency rule, which had taken effect earlier this month.
Darsi Foss, administrator for the Division of Environmental Management at the Department of Natural Resources, said that the law wasn’t anything extreme.
“It’s a narrow rule based on a very narrow law,” Foss said.
According to Foss, the law requires certain fire-fighting foams to be treated and disposed of based on DNR guidelines. That’s because PFAS chemicals – which can work their way through environments and humans – are commonly found in many firefighting foams. The City of Madison, for example, switched to using a PFAS-free foam in December of 2019.
Democratic Senator Chris Larson says the changes by Republicans have stripped the law of any real power or ability to be enforced.
“This was a very low bar, and now they’re trying to do backsies on us here,” Larson said.
Mike Mickelson, chief of staff for Republican Senator Steve Nass, who is a co-chair of the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules , says the DNR exceeded its statutory authority by including 14 prohibited PFAS varieties and a definition of foam containing materials not laid out in the original statute.
“Act 101 deals with one specific set of issues which is the use of firefighting foam containing particularly two PFAS compounds, and that’s it,” Mickelson said.
Senator Larson says last Friday’s meeting lacked any public input. He also criticized the list of invited speakers at the hearing, which included representatives from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, and the Midwest Food Products Association.
“It was an abomination of the public process,” Larson said.
The business representatives pushed against the inclusion of the table, mirroring the Republicans argument that the DNR was overextending its authority, as well as voicing concerns that the increased regulation could create liabilities for industry.
The switch comes as a PFAS action council convened by Governor Tony Evers announced their recommendations for tracking and cleaning up PFAS contamination last week. Also last week, new testing results found PFAS levels in shallow groundwater near the Dane County Regional Airport to be thousands of times higher than levels recommended by the EPA.