State legislators proposed bills to limit the amount of polyfluoroalkyl substances in the environment.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, cosponsored Senate Bill 310 to create a framework for regulating PFAS, a broad category of chemicals associated with negative health impacts ranging from reduced fertility to cancer. The bill will add to legislation passed earlier this month that severely restricts the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS in non-emergency situations. It was passed by voice votes January 21, and is being reviewed by Gov. Tony Evers. 

Nygren introduced Assembly Bill 842 Jan. 31 to fund surveys and research on PFAS contamination, including $250,000 in grant funding for exploring ways to eliminate the contamination and $1 million for the Department of Natural Resources to test for contamination in water systems, according to the bill’s text.

Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, introduced Senate Bill 772 Feb. 5, which requires the Department of Natural Resources to establish water quality and air emission standards for PFAS and to provide free blood testing for those living in an area with PFAS.

Christy Remucal, a University of Wisconsin Civil and Environmental Engineering professor who researches PFAS in the environment, said in recent years the chemical was found in significant concentrations in some parts of Wisconsin.

Currently, according to Remucal’s research, Marinette County has some of the highest levels of contamination in the state, with concentrations ranging from 73 to 19000 parts per trillion, well above the 20 ppt safe limit recommended by Wisconsin’s Department of Human Services.

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“For senator Hansen and myself, this [bill] is completely driven by the issues that we’re facing in our district, specifically here in the Marinette and Peshtigo area, which is my home town,” Nygren said. “Two years ago, we had never even heard of PFAS.”

SB 772 forces the DNR to establish and enforce standards for PFAS through a special process known as emergency rules in a time frame of six months. Normally such a process takes around three years, according to Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison).

Remucal said PFAS are a class of chemicals with incredibly useful water-repellent properties. As such, it can be found in a wide range of products, including non-stick cookware, water repellent clothing and stain-resistant fabrics, Remucal added. 

PFAS are a particularly worrisome pollutant because of its lack of natural degradation process, Remucal said. 

Remucal said regulation of the class proved to be challenging because the category contains thousands of chemicals, only some of which may actually be harmful. Though, the detrimental health effects of two PFAS chemicals in particular, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate,  have been studied for quite some time. The industry voluntarily phased the two out in the early 2000s, Remucal added. 

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In Marinette and Peshtigo, the contamination traces back to firefighting foam manufactured at the local Tyco Fire Products Manufacturing facility, Nygren said. For decades, unaware of the health effects of PFOA and PFOS, the facility produced and tested the product, Nygren added.

“They’re really effective on liquid fires, chemical fires,” Nygren said. “And yet at the time we didn’t know these chemicals were dangerous, so there was no containment system.”

Two years ago, testing revealed PFAS presence in local wells, Nygren said, and Nygren’s own home lies just a quarter of a mile away from one of the contaminated wells.

Marinette and Peshtigo are not the only areas where PFAS are present. In October, DNR testing revealed elevated PFAS levels in Madison’s Starkweather Creek, which is just south of the Truax Air Base where for years the Air National Guard used PFAS foam in firefighting drills. Since then, state environmental regulators threatened the base with legal action for not coming up with a clean up plan, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. 

“If our lakes are so polluted that we don’t wanna go in them, that has a huge impact on our community,” Taylor said. “There’s a health impact, an environmental impact and an economic impact. We can’t afford not to address this issue in a comprehensive, aggressive way.”

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Before Nygren and Hanson introduced their bills, Taylor and other Democrats introduced the Chemical Level Enforcement and Remediation Act. While Nygren and Hanson’s bill only targets the two chemicals with well-understood health effects, the CLEAR Act would proactively regulate PFAS as an entire class of chemicals, Taylor said. 

In defending the CLEAR Act, Taylor said scientists already knew more than enough and Wisconsin could not afford to wait to tackle the issue. 

Nygren, on the other hand, characterized the CLEAR act differently, saying science has yet to draw finite conclusions.

“There’s still things that these chemicals do positively,” Nygren said. “Let’s find out what their impacts are before we make it impossible for them to be used in everyday life.”