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Natural Resources Board tackles standards for PFAS
Marcy West champions standards
Marcy West and Prehn
MARCY WEST, Natural Resources Board member, speaks in support of enacting state standards for PFAS in groundwater, drinking water and surface water. West, who lives in rural LaFarge, was previously the executive director of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Board member Frederick Prehn, whose term expired in May of 2021, is seen in the back-ground.

At their meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 23, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board took up three standards for regulating per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in groundwater, surface water and drinking water from municipal water supply systems. 

The board voted against setting a standard for groundwater (well water), and adopted a standard of 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt) for drinking water from municipal water systems. For surface waters, the levels set are eight ppt for PFOS, and 20 ppt for PFOA in public water supply waters, and 95 ppt in non-public water supply areas. 

These actions were taken despite the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) recommendation of a standard of 20 ppt combined of the two PFAS of concern – PFOA and PFOS for groundwater and drinking water.

Three votes

The board took three separate votes, one for each of the proposed standards. Board member Marcy West, formerly executive director of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, championed all three proposed standards.

The first proposed rule taken up was for 25 ‘Cycle 10’ substances that have been shown to have potential or known harmful health effects, and can enter groundwater. Those substances included two different types of PFAS, as well as glyphosate more commonly known by its brand name ‘Round Up.’

The second proposed rule would have established standards for drinking water from municipal water supplies, known as ‘Maximum Contaminant Levels,’ for two types of PFAS.

The third standard would define numeric thresholds for two types of PFAS in surface waters, to be administered through the state’s Wisconsin Pollution Discharge and Elimination System (WPDES) program. The rule is intended to set PFAS standards for surface waters that supply municipal drinking water, and another standard for surface waters that don’t. Overall, the standard would have regulated ‘end of pipe’ sources of the contaminant, aiming to stop them from entering the surface waters at the source.

Types of PFAS

The two of the many types of PFAS the board was concerned with were Perfluorooctane sulfonamide (PFOA), and Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). 

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) after a thorough review of the scientific literature, recommended a statewide standard of 20 ppt combined for the two PFAS of concern in ground, and drinking water. This is the level that would trigger a health advisory, and regulation.

EPA process

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently engaged in a process to set federal PFAS standards for drinking water. On October 18, 2021, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced the agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap—laying out a whole-of-agency approach to addressing PFAS. The EPA is expected to produce standards regulating drinking water drawn from surface water The agency will also produce standards for surface water, as it relates to fish consumption. The EPA does not regulate PFAS in groundwater (well water).

The EPA’s timeline for developing standards for municipal drinking water is expected in the fall of 2022, and a final rule is expected in the fall of 2023. The rule for surface water is expected in fall of 2024.

The EPA has established health advisories for PFOA and PFOS based on the agency’s assessment of the latest peer-reviewed science. The advisories provide drinking water system operators, and state, tribal and local officials who have the primary responsibility for overseeing these systems, with information on the health risks of these chemicals, so they can take the appropriate actions to protect their residents.

To provide Americans, including the most sensitive populations, with a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure to PFOA and PFOS from drinking water, the EPA has established the health advisory levels at 70 ppt.

Health advisories provide information on contaminants that can cause human health effects and are known or anticipated to occur in drinking water. EPA's health advisories are non-enforceable and non-regulatory and provide technical information to states agencies and other public health officials on health effects, analytical methodologies, and treatment technologies associated with drinking water contamination.

Why 20 ppt combined?

In explaining why the Wisconsin DHS recom-mends a standard of 20 ppt for drinking and ground water, the following information was been pro-vided to the Natural Re-sources Board.

PFOA:Wisconsin does not currently have an NR140 Groundwater Quali-ty Public Health Enforce-ment Standard for PFOA.

DHS recommends a combined enforcement standard of 20 nanograms per liter (ng/L) or 20 ppt for PFOA. The recommended standard is based on a study that used modeling to esti-mate how much PFOA a mother has to be exposed to in order to protect the infant from developmental effects. This standard applies to the sum of PFOA and PFOS concentrations in ground-water.

The DHS recommends that the NR140 Groundwa-ter Quality Public Health Preventive Action Limit for PFOA be set at 10 percent (2 ppt) of the enforcement standard, because PFOA has been shown to have carcinogenic, teratogenic (an agent that can disturb the development of the embryo or fetus), and interactive effects.

PFOS:Wisconsin does not currently have a NR140 Groundwater Quality Public Health Enforcement Stand-ard for PFOS.

DHS recommends an en-forcement standard of 20 nanograms per liter (ng/L) or 20 ppt for PFOS. This standard is based on the Agency for Toxic Substanc-es and Disease Registry’s intermediate oral minimum risk level for PFOS. This standard applies to the sum of PFOS and PFOA concentrations in groundwater.

DHS recommends that the NR140 Groundwater Quality Public Health Pre-ventive Action Limit for PFOS be set at 10 percent (2 ppt) of the enforcement standard because PFOS have been shown to have carcinogenic, teratogenic, and interactive effects.

Health impacts:DHS recommended a combined standard for PFOA and PFOS because the health impacts of each are substan-tially identical. Those known health impacts are:

• Studies in workers and people living in areas with high levels of PFOA and PFOS show that the chemi-cals may increase cholester-ol, damage the liver, cause pregnancy-induced hyper-tension, increase the risk for thyroid disease, decrease antibody response to vac-cines, decrease fertility, and cause small decreases in birth weight. 

• Studies in research animals have found that PFOA can cause dam-age to the liver and the im-mune system, birth defects, delayed development, and newborn deaths in lab ani-mals.

• Both PFOA and PFOS have been shown to cause the same or similar effects on the immune system, development, and reproduc-tion in people and research animals indicating that PFOA can cause interactive effects.

• People can be exposed to PFOA and PFOS by drinking contaminated wa-ter, eating fish caught from contaminated water bodies, swallowing contaminated soil or dust, eating food that was packaged in material that contains PFOA, and using consumer products such as non-stick cookware, stain resistant carpeting, and water repellant clothing.

Research has shown that the majority of exposure to PFOA and PFOS comes from food. Drinking water can be a major source of the chemicals if levels are high. Babies born to mothers ex-posed to PFOA can be ex-posed during pregnancy and during breastfeeding.

Known problems

Many communities that have undertaken testing have identified alarming levels of PFAS in both municipal and private wells. Two areas where private wells have been found to be widely contaminated above a safe level are in the Village of Campbell and LaCrosse Township in LaCrosse County, as well as in the Peshtigo and Marinette areas in northeast Wisconsin. 

In the Marinette and Peshtigo areas, of 168 wells sampled, 16 exceeded 70 ppt, 29 exceeded 20 ppt, and 110 showed no evidence of contamination.

In the Town of Campbell and French Island, of the total 166 private wells sampled by the City of LaCrosse, 55 exceeded 20 ppt and 13 exceeded the DHS PFAS Hazard Index, and one showed no PFAS.  Of the 167 wells privately sampled by the well owners, 61 exceeded 20 ppt, four exceeded the DHS PFAS Hazard Index, and one showed no PFAS. Of the 200 wells sampled by DNR, 22 exceeded 20 ppt, nine exceeded the DHS PFAS Hazard Index, and 10 showed no PFAS. Of the 20 municipal wells sampled, two exceeded 20 ppt, and one showed no PFAS. 

The PFAS Hazard Index indicates that no PFAS compound detected in a well attained or exceeded the DHS recommended standard, but the mixture of PFAS compounds detected would be such that the DHS and DNR would recommend another source of safe water for use.

Municipal drinking water wells in Eau Claire (five wells between 21.3 and 70 ppt), Rhinelander (one well above 70 ppt), and Wausau (all wells between 23 to 48 ppt) have been shut down due to unsafe levels of PFAS. Citizens are alarmed, and left with no choice but to drink bottled water.

Public comments

“PFAS concentrate in breast milk, and can cause testicular, breast and endometrial cancer and autoimmune disorders,” Lee Donahue from the Village of Campbell said in her testimony to the board. “The cost of remediation of PFAS contamination should be seen as an investment, and the benefits outweigh the cost.”

Katie Rosenberg, Mayor of Wausau, had the city’s wells tested, and unsafe levels of PFAS were discovered.

“There are currently no state or federal regulations for PFAS, but the EPA has issued a health advisory for levels above 70 ppt,” Rosenberg said. “Without standards, municipalities are in limbo. I have  worried mothers calling me asking if their babies are going to die. We need clear guidelines yesterday – the public trust is shattered.”

NRB member Frederick Prehn, a Wausau dentist whose term on the board expired on May 1, 2021, took Rosenberg to task about the choice to test the municipal wells.

“What you’ve done is to create hysteria in the community because of the government’s decision to test,” Prehn told her. “The question before us is what should the standard be?”

Doug Otzinger, a Marinette City Council member and former mayor spoke in support of enacting the standards as proposed by the DHS.

“We should not wait for the EPA to enact regulatory standards, and enacting these standards in Wisconsin will not be too costly,” Otzinger said. “Without any rules, contamination of the groundwater will continue to grow, and municipalities need rules to guide them. The chemical industry is opposed to enacting what they call a patchwork of state rules, but when federal rules are enacted, they will lobby against them. Utility operators are afraid of the consequences of testing, but they have not created the problem, they are the victims.”

Cindy Boyle, chair of the Town of Peshtigo, mother of three sons, and a private well owner where unsafe levels of PFAS have been found, added her voice to the call to enact the standards as proposed by the DHS.

“I’m exhausted, pissed off and scared, and I am a relentless advocate for adopting and enforcing PFAS standards,” Boyle told the board. “My blood levels of PFAS are five times higher than the national average, and one third of the parcels in my township are affected. I recently had to have my thyroid removed, and I don’t have the courage to have my son’s blood tested. We need to put safety and human health before the interests of the industry.”

“The threat of PFAS contamination is real, and it is growing,” Peter Burress of Wisconsin Conservation Voters said. “Michigan and Minnesota have engaged in comprehensive testing, and are tackling remediation of the problem.”

John Robinson of Wisconsin’s Green Fire lives in Wausau, and is a member of the Wausau Waterworks Board. He testified in support of adopting the standards as recommended by the DHS.

“Rules create certainty and guidance for municipalities and citizens about when to take action,” Robinson said. “We can’t wait for the EPA to act or the DNR will have to start the rulemaking process over, which will delay the state’s response to the problem. These chemicals don’t break down, which is why they’re called ‘forever’ chemicals.”

Cheryl Nenn with Milwaukee Riverkeepers also testified in support of adopting the standards as proposed by DHS.

“I support adoption of the proposed rules,” Nenn said. “In Michigan, less than five percent of the utilities tested for PFAS had positive results, so utility managers don’t need to be afraid. The EPA has had a bad history for formulating standards, and to do so would require major changes to the federal Clean Water Act.”

Retired DNR employee Darsi Foss, who had previously managed the PFAS response at the DNR, testified as a private citizen.

“I support the proposals from DHS, and I believe that there is no guarantee that EPA will meet the rule development timeline that they’ve published,” Foss said. “We have a historic opportunity with the coming funding from the federal infrastructure bill to secure funding for municipalities that need to fix problems with PFAS, with lots of the money coming targeted to small and disadvantaged communities. And it’s not like if Wisconsin refuses the money, it won’t get spent – it will just get spent in other states.”

Natural Resources Board chair Kazmierski asked Foss if a municipality would have to enact a standard to be eligible for the upcoming funding.

“The major thing to position yourself to be qualified for funding is to undertake the testing,” Foss replied.

Kayla Furton is a resident in the Town of Peshtigo, and testified in support of enacting the standards as proposed by DHS.

“When I moved back to my childhood home with my three children, I had no idea that PFAS contamination had been detected in the aquifer that supplies my well water,” Furton said. “My well water has tested at 63 ppt combined, I have thyroid issues and my son has recently been diagnosed with a PFAS-related health issue.”

Scott Laeser of Clean Wisconsin also testified in support of the proposed standard.

“If we’re going to focus on the cost, let’s think about the $600,000 per year that the DNR is currently spending supplying the people on French Island in LaCrosse County with bottled water,” Laeser said. “PFAS testing should no longer be optional, and we need to get away from the polluter’s philosophy of ‘pollute first and ask questions later’.”

Opposition testimony

Testifying in opposition to adopting the standards for PFAS as recommended by the DHS were a lobbyist from the Washington DC office of the American Chemical Council (ACC), and Scott Manley of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC).

“Federal standards coming from EPA will quickly replace any state standards adopted, putting municipal water utility operators in double jeopardy,” the ACC lobbyist said. “DHS has overestimated the effects of exposure by a factor of four for pre- and post-natal exposures, versus in utero.”

Scott Manley of WMC told the board that the proposed rules have two fatal flaws:

• DNR failure to follow the process of the economic impact analysis (EIA)

• proposal of a combined standard for PFOA and PFOS

“The EIA undertaken by DNR unlawfully reduced the estimated costs of remediation through assuming that costs to municipalities would be amortized over time,” Manley said. “For instance, DNR says that the cost of replacing a municipal well would be $50,000, when it would really be between $1-1.5 million – a 2,900 percent underestimation.”

Manley said that DNR had also not included costs of de-watering at a construction site, and had gotten their estimate for treatment of landfill leach wrong.

“Further, proposing a combined standard would require an explicit authorization in state statute,” Manley said. “We support adoption of a 70 ppt standard for each of the two PFAS of concern because state statute requires DHS to use federal numbers, and the science the DHS used was not used by the EPA when they set their 70 ppt health advisory standard.”

Cheryl Heilman, DNR counsel, disputed Manley’s allegations about the unlawfulness of proposing a combined standard.

“There is currently an active case on a related topic in Jefferson County, where the judge has reconsidered his ruling about regulation of toxic noxious substances,” Heilman said. “PFOA and PFOS act on the body in the same way, and so authority for a combined standard exists within state statute for drinking water and ground water.”

A representative from the DHS also spoke to defend their 20 ppt recommendation.

“State statute allows us to take into account more recent and relevant data in making recommendations,” the representative explained. “In particular, the data we cite takes into account impacts to the immune system, especially for young children, which was not considered by EPA when making their 70 ppt health advisory.”

DNR Secretary Preston Cole praised the work of DHS.

“Public Health are modern-day heroes,” Cole stated. “We at DNR are very proud of your work.”

Funding from state

In mid-February, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers announced the state will use more than $600,000 in funding from the EPA to help local communities that are interested in sampling municipal water supplies for PFAS. 

While sampling is voluntary, communities that choose to sample their municipal waters will have data to know that they are providing safe water to their residents. If a community finds their drinking water supply is impacted by PFAS, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Health Services (DHS) will assist community leaders to lever-age all resources available to protect the health of the residents and address the contamination.

 “PFAS are dangerous chemicals that we know impact the health and well-being of communities all across our state, and we have a shared mission and obligation as local, state, and national leaders to make sure every family has access to clean, healthy drinking water now and for generations to come,” said Governor Evers. “These funds are a great opportunity for municipalities to take a look at their water supply, learn whether their water is PFAS-impacted, and to work with the DNR and DHS to move forward in remediation for everyone's health and safety.”


In August of 2020, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team announced an expansion of their PFAS investigation in the state. The state had just adopted an eight ppt standard for PFOA in drinking water, and a 16 ppt standard for PFOS. The new standards updated the state’s previous groundwater clean-up criteria of 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS.

Between February of 2018 and March of 2021, Michigan tested 97 municipal water utilities. Of those 68 percent of tested utilities showed either levels that did not require regulatory action or remediation (23 percent), or showed no levels of PFAS at all (45 percent). A total of 32 percent either exceeded the regulatory levels (31 percent) or were still under review (one percent).

In Minnesota, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has been working on issues related to PFAS since the early 2000s when they started addressing what were then called PFCs (per fluorinated chemicals) at four waste disposal sites in Washington County used by the 3M Company, and testing groundwater, surface water, and fish throughout the metro area. 

There have since been several periods of renewed interest and activity as they learned more about these chemicals and their potential effects on human health and the environment.  For example, the Minnesota Department of Health first issued fish consumption advisories for PFCs in 2007. 

Later it was found that firefighting foams containing PFAS could contaminate ground water. A more recent issue is PFAS contamination at compost sites.

Current efforts by the MPCA to manage PFAS impacts in Minnesota range from working directly with landfill operators to developing water quality standards for PFAS. In addition, the Minnesota Department of Health has issued fish consumption advisories for lakes and rivers based on PFOS contamination.

While Minnesota does not have a statewide water quality standard for PFAS, methods in rule can be used to develop site-specific water quality criteria (WQC). Site-specific WQC can support multiple regulatory programs and clean up actions. Because the methods are from an approved rule, the criteria do not need to go through rulemaking..

Most of MPCA’s work to date on PFAS and water quality criteria or standards focuses on assessing the need to lower PFOS concentrations in fish.