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Board approves development of PFAS groundwater standards
Natural Resources
Wisconsin NRB

WISCONSIN - Remedying a shortfall in oversight of drinking water quality, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board (NRB) voted unanimously to approve the Scope Statement for Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) to develop standards for PFAS in groundwater. This action was taken at the board’s meeting on December 14.

The board had previously approved standards for PFAS in municipal drinking water and surface waters that supply drinking water of 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt). The proposed standards had been co-developed by WDNR and Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), with a recommended regulatory level of 20 ppt.

The 70 ppt standard was based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health advisory, which is not a regulatory standard. In June of 2022, EPA issued an updated health advisory for PFAS. The updated advisory levels, which are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect.

In ‘Statement of Scope for Board Order DG-17-22,’ WDNR’s James Zellmer, Acting Environmental Management Division Administrator, wrote “the objective of the proposed rule is to protect public health, given that groundwater is the primary source of drinking water throughout the state. PFAS breaks down very slowly and can accumulate in people. PFAS may cause reproductive effects such as decreased fertility and pregnancy-induced hypertension, developmental effects or delays in children including birth defects and low birth weight, increased risk of some cancers including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers, decreased antibody response to vaccines, and increased cholesterol.”

Public testimony

Prior to the board’s vote, nine individuals provided testimony to the board in support of approval of the scope statement. Those included individuals representing the group SOH2O (representing citizens in Peshtigo and Marinette counties), Milwaukee Riverkeepers, Clean Wisconsin, Wisconsin Conservation Voters, and the Town of Campbell in LaCrosse County.

Tom Kilian, District 3 Alderman in the City of Wausau, where PFAS contamination of municipal water has been found, urged the board to approve the statement of scope.

“Most municipal water comes from groundwater, and we need to position the DNR to test, assess and take action,” Kilian said. “Not to enact standards would be illogical, like monitoring speeders in a school zone without an enforceable speed limit.”

John Robinson of Wisconsin’s Greenfire also spoke in support of approval of the scope statement. He said the state must act because EPA will not enact enforceable standards for groundwater.

NRB board member Frederick Prehn asked Robinson how the standard would be utilized for enforcement, and whether the state would focus on finding the source of the contamination?

“Enacting an enforceable standard will stimulate intervention, evaluation, addressing the contamination at the source, and prompt clean up action, regulated under the spills law,” Robinson responded.

Prehn then asked if adopting a standard would give the state authority to mandate testing of private wells?

“No,” Robinson responded. “Under NR 716 (Site Investigations), DNR is required to determine the degree and extent of contamination, and to require the party responsible for the pollution to replace contaminated wells.”

Beth Neary of the Wisconsin Environmental Health Network was the last to provide testimony.

“PFAS are the DDT of our generation,” Neary said. “The health impacts of PFAS are particularly concerning for children, and we owe them adoption of a standard.”

Question and answer

NRB board member Bill Smith asked Zellmer what the benefit of having an enforceable standard would be for private well owners?

“Again, private well owners will not be compelled to test their water if a standard is adopted, but the standard will provide them with information about what levels of PFAS in their water are safe to consume,” Zellmer replied. “Adopting the standard will also make them eligible for assistance through the Well Compensation Program.”

NRB board member Terry Hilgenberg asked Zellmer if WDNR would collaborate with EPA on all aspects of rule development and implementation?

“Yes, we are currently, and will be, in close collaboration with EPA,” Zellmer responded. “We are currently also working with DHS to develop plans for how to help private well owners.”

Zellmer went on to say that WDNR’s work with DHS involves plans to continue with the current modes of assistance, as well as in development of long-term solutions.

“Adopting a standard will allow us to take action regarding future discharges and remediation of past discharges,” Zellmer said.

NRB board member Frederick Prehn asked about what options there are for private well owners with contaminated water.

“There is currently the option to filter water to remove PFAS, as well as bottled water,” Zellmer said. “We will learn more as we conduct more sampling about what range of options are available, and for past, current and future discharges of PFAS into the groundwater, we will be able to attempt to identify the responsible party and require them to invest in remediation.”

Prehn asked if currently available technologies would allow PFAS to be removed from groundwater.

“If we can identify the source, we can require the responsible party to remove any hotspots,” Zellmer said. “Remediation requires treatment with activated carbon filters, well replacement through the Well Compensation Program, and supplying bottled water.”

NRB board member Marcy West asked what the timeline on rule development would be, and what EPA’s timeline for updated health advisories is.

“EPA intends to produce a draft by the end of 2022, and finalize it in 2023,” Zellmer said. “This timeline aligns very well with WDNR’s timeline for rule development.”

NRB board chairman Gregory Kazmierski commented that all the people that had spoken in support of standards development had spoken about “protections” – I don’t see any protections in this – are we overselling what we can accomplish through standards development? Can we actually address legacy PFAS pollution?

“It is very challenging to remove legacy pollution from groundwater, and our options are to cut it off at the source and provide filtration or an alternative source of water such as connecting to municipal water or a neighboring well,” Zellmer explained. “Adopting the standard will allow WDNR to evaluate the extent of the problem, and the good news is that the science of remediation is evolving.”