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Rule making process re-started for PFAS in groundwater
By Wisconsin DNR
PFAS cycle

WISCONSIN - The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) re-started the process of developing a standard for PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated substances) in groundwater on Friday, Nov. 4. On that date, a public hearing was held to allow citizens to provide input. It was attended by about 20 members of the public, and of the 20 who testified, all spoke in support of WDNR developing the standard.

PFAS are a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. A recent review from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines a host of health effects associated with PFAS exposure, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.

In March of 2022, after a prior rulemaking process, WDNR along with Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) proposed standards for municipal drinking water, surface waters that supply municipal drinking water systems, and groundwater. At a contentious meeting of the Natural Resources Board (NRB), standards for municipal water and surface waters were approved at 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt). This was a significantly higher level than the 20 ppt proposed by WDNR and DHS.

The board voted down establishing a standard for groundwater, which supplies drinking water to about 70 percent of residents in the state through private wells.

The 70 ppt standard adopted for municipal and surface waters was based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health advisory, which is not a regulatory standard, of 70 ppt. The health advisory is intended 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.

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 at this time.

EPA also announced in June that it was inviting states and territories to apply for $1 billion – the first of $5 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grant funding – to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water, specifically in small or disadvantaged communities.


WDNR started the November 4 hearing with a brief presentation on why they were re-initiating the rule-making process. The presentation was provided by Ann Hirekatur, Public Hearing Officer, and Bruce Reineck, WDNR Groundwater Section Chief.

“This presentation is designed to give public hearing participants an overview of why we have initiated this rule-making process, and what we intend as the scope of the process,” Reineck said. “The next step after a final proposed scope is formulated, taking into account comments received, will be to take the scope to the NRB for approval.”

Once the scope is approved by the NRB, WDNR will be moving into the rule drafting and economic impact analysis report. The proposed rule will then go through an external review, and any revisions will be made, before the draft rule goes to the NRB for approval. If approved, a public hearing on the rule will be scheduled. Following the public hearing, and any revisions, the final proposed rule will be sent to the NRB for final approval.

“Our preliminary proposed scope will be to establish numeric groundwater quality standards for PFAS,” Reineck said. “This will include PFOA, PFOS, PFBS, and various ‘GenX’ chemicals. This process has been initiated by our department because of EPA’s issuance of an updated health advisory for the chemicals.”

Reineck explained that the purpose of this proposed rule-making process is to protect public health.

Potential adverse health effects for humans of PFOA and PFOS include increased cholesterol levels, decrease in antibody response to certain vaccines, and reduced fertility in women.

Potential adverse health effects of PFBS include increased risk of heart disease, infertility and high blood pressure disorders in pregnant women, including preeclampsia, and asthma among children. Studies in research animals found that high levels can cause damage to the liver and kidneys, alter blood chemistry and thyroid hormone levels, and affect development.

Potential adverse health effects of GenX chemicals include results from studies among research animals showing that high levels of HFPO-DA affected blood and development, and causes kidney and liver damage. No studies have evaluated the effects among people.

The rule-making will take place under the NR-140 chapter of state statute for ‘Groundwater Quality.’ This statute applies to regulated entities/activities such as solid and hazardous wastes, spills and remediation sites, wastewater discharges, septic tanks, salt storage, pesticide applications, bottled water, Well Compensation Grant Program, and improved public health and welfare from reduction in exposure to bacterial contamination.

Public comments

Doug Otzinger lives in Marinette County, and is the former mayor of Marinette, and a member of SOH2, a citizen’s group in Marinette and Pestigo.

“I support WDNR’s move to develop PFAS standards for groundwater,” Otzinger said. “If we don’t enact rules, then we won’t be able to protect citizens and farmers from contaminated water, and could expose our children to irreparable harm. The EPA has issued a new health advisory level that basically says if we can detect any PFAS in water, then it is too much. However, EPA doesn’t regulate groundwater quality, so it is imperative that WDNR do so.”

Deborah Cronmiller is the Executive Director of the League of Women Voters, and she testified in support of the rule development process.

“Access to clean groundwater is a fundamental human right,” Cronmiller stated. “Only WDNR can enact enforceable groundwater standards to protect us from PFAS contamination in our water, and I urge you to act ASAP.”

Cronmiller pointed out that groundwater supplies drinking water for 70 percent of state residents from private wells, and also is crucial for agriculture and tourism. She said the WDNR must keep up with the evolving science on the adverse health impacts of PFAS, and must act before more wells are contaminated and more citizens have to be supplied with bottled water.

Peter Burress with Wisconsin Conservation Voters was the next person to provide testimony.

“Wisconsin has already taken some steps to protect citizens from PFAS, but we are still waiting for groundwater protections,” Burress said. “Groundwater is one of the state’s greatest treasures, and we are currently not protecting it.”

Burress stated he is opposed to the current inaction, and pointed out that Wisconsin’s 40-year legacy of protecting groundwater has been an inspiration to the nation.

“There is widespread support for development of a groundwater standard for PFAS, and there has never been an instance of an individual going out of business because regulations were implemented,” Burress said. “Our state is lagging behind Minnesota and Michigan in grappling with this problem.”

Cheryl Nenn with the Milwaukee Riverkeepers provided input.

“In the Milwaukee River basin, most citizens get their drinking water from groundwater,” Nenn pointed out. “As we know, groundwater and surface water are connected, and contamination in the small watersheds eventually winds up in Lake Michigan, which supplies drinking water for 1,000s.”

Lee Donahue, Second District Supervisor from the Town of Campbell in LaCrosse County, spoke on behalf of the town’s 4,300 residents.

“Our groundwater has been contaminated for years and no one told us,” Donahue said. “Health impacts of PFAS contamination include premature birth, thyroid disease and more, and this can lead to costly healthcare interventions. Every child deserves safe water, and we need to protect our groundwater for unborn children as well.”

Donahue said that without a standard for PFAS contamination in groundwater, innocent infants continue to be poisoned in the womb, which she pointed out, should be the safest place for them. She also pointed out that contamination also threatens wildlife, which is important to hunters and anglers.

“Our state has other groundwater standards, and it’s time to add a standard for PFAS,” Donahue said.

Gillian Pomplun raised the potential contamination of surface and groundwater from the Bell Center landfill in Crawford County. The landfill was sited in a sand terrace south of the Village of Bell Center and Sand Creek, a Class I trout stream, and just uphill from the WDNR Kickapoo River Wildlife Area. It was originally intended for municipal waste, but was used to inter industrial waste from the 3M corporation as well. That waste, according to an eyewitness, included bales of Thinsulate and Scotchbrite.

“Though WDNR misfortunately owns the property where the landfill is located, and has taken heroic steps to cap and seed the site, that waste continues to sit there in sand,” Pomplun said. “We owe it to residents of the Village of Bell Center, who get their drinking water from private wells, anglers fishing for trout in Sand Creek, and anglers and hunters who recreate in the Kickapoo River Wildlife Area, to conduct testing to determine if there is PFAS contamination.”

Pomplun pointed out that only the 3M Corporation knows where all these small sites may be scattered across rural areas. The company Lead Free Enterprises, which operated the landfill in Bell Center when industrial waste was interred there, also operated a landfill in Bridgeport in rural Prairie du Chien, and landfills scattered across northeast Iowa.

Pomplun pointed out that such industrial waste sites in small, impoverished rural areas is an environmental equity issue.

Jeffrey LaMont is a retired professor of Environmental Studies and the co-founder of SOH20.

“I live in the plume of PFAS contamination from the Tyco Corporation and I support this proposed scope for the rule-making process,” LaMont stated.