Today, Wisconsin lawmakers moved to advance a bill to curb water contamination.
The bill, which now heads to the State Senate, would prevent firefighters from using foam that contains PFAS, a family of toxic chemicals. The bill would allow the use of toxic foam in emergencies and in cases when fire departments have a plan to deal with the foam.
PFAS, or so-called “forever chemicals,” don’t break down easily in the environment.
Last March, the City of Madison closed a well on Madison’s east side due to concerns over high levels of PFAS. The nearby Dane County Regional Airport has been a source of contamination through firefighting foam and burn pits.
Jeffrey Lafferty, a spokesperson for Public Health Madison Dane County, says that PFAS levels in Madison remain safe. But he says but caution is warranted.
“It depends on your exposure,” says Lafferty. “And on very high levels of exposure, there have been impacts to the immune system, increasing cholesterol levels, and it lowers the chance of a person getting pregnant.”
Lafferty says that one of the primary ways people come into contact with PFAS is through eating fish contaminated with the chemicals.
And last week, the state issued an advisory for eating fish from Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona.
Regulating PFAS has been a legislative priority since last year, when officials found relatively high levels of PFAS contamination in the northeastern county of Marinette County. Representative John Nygren, a Republican from the city of Marinette, introduced the water contamination bill in response to contamination in his home district. The bill specifically targeted PFAS in firefighting foam.
“There is little doubt their use in emergencies has saved both lives and property,” says Nygren. “When mixed with water, these foams have low surface tension and spreads easily which makes them highly effective against flammable liquid fires. Oftentimes testing or training took place without proper precautions or containment measures in place. This has led to PFAS environmental contamination surrounding airports. For decades, a major business in my district manufactured this foam and has tested it in an outdoor training field.”
After the Madison Gas and Electric fire last year, Madison residents raised concerns that the PFAS in the firefighting foam may have contaminated the drinking water. Lafferty says that they saw no significant changes afterward. But the Madison Fire Department announced their foam was going PFAS-free last month. Cynthia Schuster is the spokesperson for the department.
“In mid-December we took two days to have every rig in the city come on over to have their foam swapped out and properly disposed of and their tanks properly cleaned so that none of the old stuff would carry over into the new mixture,” said Schuster. “And then that was disposed of my a company we contracted with. Effective mid-December, after those two days, every fire truck in the city had switched over to our PFAS-free foam.”
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway also told NBC earlier this week that the city was working to educate people on PFAS and how to avoid it.
The bipartisan bill received some opposition from Democrats, who criticized it as not going far enough. Representative Chris Taylor of Madison, whose district contains the Dane County Airport and Truax Air Base and the contaminated well 15, called for broader regulation of PFAS.
“My point is that we can’t just take this step,” said Taylor. “We have to keep moving forward. We welcome collaboration with you all, because I know that this issue is impacting a lot of our districts. We don’t even know yet all of the places it’s coming from, much less have a plan to filter that water out or somehow clean it before it enters our waterways.”
Representative Taylor introduced an amendment to the bill that would have required the Wisconsin DNR to set and enforce PFAS standards. The amendment did not pass.
The bill now heads to the senate. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not respond to a request for comment by time of broadcast.