Lee Donahue had been a town supervisor for the town of Campbell located on French Island for all of six months when news came to her that the town’s drinking water and groundwater had PFAS in it — forcing her to quickly get up to speed on the dangerous class of chemicals and what contamination meant for the island she’d called home for nearly 15 years.

PFAS, or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a large class of chemical compounds, some of which have been linked to adverse health effects including decreased fertility, cancers, developmental delays in children, high cholesterol and more. Sometimes called “forever chemicals,” PFAS are found everywhere — from non-stick pans and fast food wrappers to dental floss and firefighting foams.

Though PFAS were first created in the 1930s, the extent to which these chemicals impact human and ecological health is still being researched.

For the Wisconsin residents of Campbell, the news of these unknown substances appearing in the groundwater on the island they live on was devastating. Not only is water crucial to everyday tasks and life, Donahue said residents have to think twice before swimming, fishing and gardening — activities integral to Wisconsin culture

Despite a growing body of research that indicates exposure to these chemicals can be harmful to the human body, the Environmental Protection Agency has not created official standards for state regulators to determine how much PFAS can safely be in drinking and groundwater — though the EPA has said they are in the process of creating them.

In the absence of federal standards, some states have taken the initiative to set their own standards — varying widely in the amount and form of PFAS as well as the action utility companies need to take to after releasing the chemicals into the environment. But Wisconsin has not set any enforceable state standard despite the looming dangers and unknowns of PFAS.

The state government’s one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature of establishing environmental policy has left some Wisconsin communities without the money or a clear path forward to remedy the ever-growing PFAS contamination in Wisconsin water.

How we got here

French Island was not the first community to raise alarms about PFAS contamination in the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employee Jim Zellmer, who serves as the deputy administrator for the Environmental Management Division, traces current discussions about PFAS in Wisconsin to 2017. Tyco, formerly Johnson Controls, notified the towns of Marinette and Peshtigo that their waste releases had contained high levels of PFAS compounds that made their way into drinking and groundwater supplies.

Tyco manufactures fire-fighting foams, which often contain PFAS. These foams offer a way to quickly extinguish otherwise hard to contain or dangerous fires, such as ones started by jet fuels, which makes them common at airports and military bases. While different forms of PFAS have numerous applications, firefighting foams are one of the main sources of high PFAS levels in drinking water. If the foam is not well contained, it can easily run off into the environment, said University of Wisconsin PFAS researcher and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Christy Remucal.

Water Operations Manager Warren Howard said the 2017 meeting with the DNR and Tyco came as a surprise — Howard and the mayor didn’t even know what the parties were to discuss until the meeting began. 

“That was probably the first time we heard what PFAS was,” Howard said. “At the end of the day, they sample so many chemicals but … we didn’t know what PFAS was in 2017, I’ll be frank.”

Howard and others in the town of Marinette started sampling their water for PFAS within two weeks of the meeting, commencing their uphill battle to clean their waters – a battle that continues to this day. 

In the nearby town of Peshtigo, local business owner and town chairperson Cindy Boyle was also dealing with the repercussions of Tyco’s actions, which are actually the reason she got involved in local politics in the first place. 

“This November it will be five years since we found out about the PFAS contamination, and we have been fighting it head-on literally ever since,” Boyle said. “That’s what led to my running for the town chair position because I basically influenced as many positive outcomes as I could from the outside with respect to getting permanent, safe drinking water for those residents impacted. And I knew ultimately that I would need to at least have a seat at the table to see what could be done about holding the responsible party accountable.”

The DNR currently lists 73 open contamination sites in cities throughout the state, including Eau Claire, Wausau and Madison among others.

PFAS are a uniquely complicated issue to regulate and clean out of the environment. 

On a chemical level, because they are man-made compounds, Remucal said many forms do not break down or degrade naturally, causing them to persist in ecosystems and organisms for decades, known as bioaccumulation. 

This property has earned them the title of a “forever chemical”, which Remucal says is slightly misleading because PFAS are a group of more than 5,000 chemicals — some break down quickly, others slowly and some never. 

The two main forms of PFAS that many communities are monitoring and the rule-making process has focused on are PFOA and PFOS. 

“[What’s] concerning about these as compared to some other contaminants is that these health effects happen at very low concentrations,” Reumcal said. “So we’re talking about nanograms per liter or parts per trillion. So it’s really, really tiny.”

Wisconsin has initiated the rule-making process for drinking water, surface water and groundwater standards for PFOA and PFOS, but the road to regulation is filled with twists and turns from public, political and bureaucratic actors who all have a say in the process.

Never ending cycle

Once the DNR initiates the rulemaking process, Zellmer said the clock starts ticking — state law requires that the DNR completes the rule-making process within 30 months. 

“You look at that and think, ‘Boy, that’s a long time,’ but then if you look at the rule-making process, that is a lot of work in a relatively short amount of time,” Zellmer said.

For PFOA and PFOS, the DNR made it as far as presenting draft regulations to the Natural Resources Board, the policy-setting body for the DNR. The board is made up of governor-appointed representatives tasked with approving rule proposals before they advance to the legislature and governor. 

In February, when the DNR presented their proposed standards for drinking, surface and groundwater, the NRB approved the surface water standard, weakened the proposed drinking water standard and failed to reach a consensus about groundwater, ultimately not passing the groundwater standard.

Clean Wisconsin Water Program Director Scott Laser said this outcome was a disappointment. Laser said the weakened drinking standard, changed from 20 ppt to 70 ppt is based on a 2016 EPA health advisory recommendation that Clean Wisconsin and others in the state find outdated, Laser said.

The majority of people in Wisconsin get their water from public wells managed and treated through municipalities that are covered by drinking water standards. But, around one-third of the state, the majority of whom live in rural areas, use private wells that draw from groundwater. The loss of the groundwater standard for PFAS will leave many in the state unprotected, Laser said.

Because the groundwater standard failed, Zellmer said the DNR will have to begin the rulemaking process again. The surface and drinking water standards are still awaiting approval from the legislature and eventually the governor, meaning those standards are not enforceable yet.

The delay in rules came as a letdown for many people like Donahue and Boyle who have been calling for something to be done about PFAS contamination in their communities. Lance Green, a resident of Madison in the Starkweather Creek neighborhood, an area impacted particularly hard by PFAS runoff from the Airport and Truax Airfield, said the shift in Wisconsin politics from being proactive about protecting the environment to reactionary is disheartening.

“Wisconsin used to be right on the forefront of making sure that we had clean water and clean air,” Green said. “We have a long, strong environmental history. … I was kind of blown away that we couldn’t do better with more quickly cleaning up PFAS.”

Laura Olah, the executive director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger in Merrimac, Wisconsin, said the process of protecting water is a never-ending cycle. Olah has been advocating for clean drinking water in her community for nearly 30 years.

CWSAB formed in response to explosive and ammunition runoff from the Badger Army Ammunition Plant leaking into the community’s water system. Though the original contamination was revealed to the community of Merrimac decades ago, the site is still undergoing clean-up, a project likely to cost as much as $250 million by the time it’s through, according to CWASB’s website.

Part of the difficulty in moving forward on PFAS regulations may lie in the different ways industry and the general public weigh the risks of contamination.

UW professor of life sciences communication Dominique Brossard said industry experts often evaluate risk by the likelihood of experiencing an adverse outcome. But from a community perspective, people want to be thoroughly protected and are more concerned about the potential impacts than the numerical risks.

Brossard said cars provide a clear example — people accept driving as dangerous but feel protected by seat belts, traffic signs and other policies that make people feel safe enough to use cars.

“At the end of the day, when we think of the risk in our everyday life, it’s not about having no risk at all is what level is acceptable,” Brossard said. 

Donahue said while there are many officials and organizations that are committed to creating change in environmental policy and PFAS protections, it is clear that others are more concerned about how further regulations will affect profits. 

“I look at it from the perspective of if we can inspire consumer confidence in our products, that is going to provide an economic boom,” Donahue said. “to say Wisconsin products are regulated so that their sparkling water or their beer or wine or their milk have been tested for PFAS and they are PFAS free … that’s a selling point.”

The precautionary principle

There is still so much that researchers are learning about PFAS, Remucal said. Yet, despite numerous scandals prior to 2017 Wisconsin contaminations, PFAS has escaped regulation — thanks in part to the way the U.S. approaches environmental policy.

Other parts of the world, like the European Union, form their environmental policy around the Precautionary Principle, which is a philosophy that focuses on taking a cautious stance when facing uncertain outcomes, according to environmental expert Steve Ventura. 

“In my opinion, a better way to think about new chemicals, particularly ones that are going to be widely used [is to] assume that we may have a problem and prove that they’re safe rather than wait till the problem occurs and figure out how bad it is,” Ventura said. “But that’s not the system we’re dealing with here.”

The current U.S. system behind environmental policy has become highly politicized, Ventura said, which leaves behind vulnerable communities impacted by PFAS in their water systems. 

Boyle said the system of releasing chemicals and asking for forgiveness later feels like a counterintuitive way of approaching environmental policy.

“To me, it seems ridiculous that we would continue to talk about how to remediate,” Boyle said. “Obviously, you want to remediate because it’s already in the environment, but you really need to start being mindful of stopping putting it in there to begin with.”

In a world where we don’t have the opportunity to change the past, Laser said focusing on preventing further exposure is key — requiring a balancing act between need and safety.

“Do we need them [PFAS] in ski wax so that we go extra fast on our skis? I don’t know if that’s a need,” Laser said. “Do we really need them on fast food wrappers so that our butter burgers and Big Macs are a little less sticky? I’m not sure that trade-off is worth it.”

Seeking solutions

Without state or federal standards and no clear regulatory path on the horizon, communities are left to deal with the problem on their own. In Marinette, Howard said Tyco is footing the bill for testing and clean up as the party responsible for the contamination, allowing the community to monitor the rising levels and look into remediation methods. But Howard said this won’t be the case forever. 

Disposing of PFAS in biosolids in Marinette cost Tyco between $3 and $4 million in 2019 – a price tag Marinette can’t afford.

“We knew that we couldn’t budget for that every year, because obviously there’s gonna be a point where they’re not going to take responsibility for everything, once they stop sending [money] to us,” Howard said.

Marinette has invested in new technology with the help of Tyco to better manage the waste cleaning PFAS produces to lower their costs to dispose of biosolids. While Tyco has helped offset the cost of contamination, Boyle and other community members argue the company has not gone far enough. Tyco is currently caught in a lawsuit from the state justice department that argues they have not done enough to clean up the damage they have caused.

The issue extends past drinking water. PFAS contamination also impacts recreational activities like swimming and fishing. PFAS causes harm to a person’s body when it’s ingested, so accidentally swallowing water while swimming or gardening with soil and water in contaminated areas also exposes people to PFAS. 

While Starkweather Creek isn’t used for drinking water, it’s an important landmark for recreation. In 2019, signs went up around the creek warning the community that the water was tainted with PFAS and alerting them swimming, fishing and other activities posed a risk to their health.

“You put a few signs up and it’s solved right?” Green said. “No, the pollution is still there.”

The loss of access to the natural recreation space built into their community is something many other neighborhoods in Madison don’t have to deal with. Fishing in particular is a major concern for the Starkweather Creek area, Green said. As a low-income area, fishing as a major food source is common.

To address their main concerns with PFAS, Green said the Friends of Stark Weather Creek are working with UW researchers. UW veterinary student Alexis Payette, who works with the  Wisconsin Advocates for Public Health, is working to survey the community to learn more about the impacts and understanding of PFAS in the area. 

Payette hopes researchers and advocates who feel burned out from spending years working toward policy outcomes can support each other in the ongoing battle for regulation. 

“It’s so easy to get bogged down in the legislative details, and I guess it is equally easy to get bogged down in the research details as well, but yeah, talking to the people and hearing the issues is exciting,” Payette said.

Despite the efforts of researchers, dragging legislative action and fervent advocates, Green said the main problem remains at the end of the day – the chemicals are there to stay.

“It’s unfortunate that we do things before we have to prove that they’re not going to hurt people … Sometimes you wonder who’s looking out for us,” Howard said. “Our mayor and our group of people have been trying to be proactive. But I can tell you this — I’ve been in a lot of meetings. It’s never enough.”