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February 22, 2020

1/23/2020 7:30:00 AM
Wisconsin lawmakers approve firefighting foam restrictions
Todd Richmond
Associated Press

MADISON (AP) - Wisconsin Republicans signed off Tuesday on a bill that would impose new restrictions on firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals in the hopes of reducing soil and water contamination, despite Democrats' complaints that the proposal would accomplish next to nothing. The Senate approved the Republican-authored measure with a voice vote Tuesday afternoon. The Assembly followed suit with its own voice vote later in the day.

The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who can sign it into law or veto it. Evers' spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, didn't respond to an email asking whether he supports the bill.

The governor has made improving water quality a priority, though; he signed an executive order in August directing the Department of Natural Resources to develop regulatory limits on PFAS. The department's board was set to vote Wednesday on whether to authorize the department to begin drafting those standards.

Democrats in both chambers railed against the bill, insisting that it doesn't go far enough in combating PFAS contamination.

"(The foam bill) does not change anything. It does not deal with existing contamination. We need to do much more," Democratic Sen. Mark Miller said. "(PFAS contamination) is not just hypothetical. This is real. This is something we need to respond to."

The bill's chief Senate sponsor, Republican Robert Cowles, said the proposal is a start and pledged that more legislation will be coming. In the meantime, it makes no sense to reject a proposal that will protect firefighters, he said.

Republican Rep. John Nygren, the bill's chief Assembly sponsor, also promised that the measure wouldn't be the last attempt to deal with PFAS pollution.

"This bill is not the sole solution to the problem," he said. "We all want clean drinking water."

PFAS are man-made chemicals that research suggests can decrease female fertility, increase the risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women and lower birth weights. The chemicals have been used for decades in a range of products, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers and stain-resistant sprays.

The chemicals have drawn more scrutiny in recent years as potentially toxic contaminants in ground and surface water.

Tyco Fire Products discovered in 2013 that soil and well contamination on its Marinette fire training property contained PFAS and four years later acknowledged that the chemicals had spread beyond the facility. The company began distributing bottled water to residents whose wells may have been contaminated.

Traces of PFAS also have been found in a number of wells in Madison. State health officials recently warned people to limit consumption of fish from Madison's Lake Monona due to PFAS contamination. The state Department of Natural Resources hasn't identified the source, but firefighters have trained with foam for years at the Dane County Regional Airport.

Over the last six months, two City of Rhinelander municipal wells have been taken offline due to PFAS contamination. In June, the city took Well No. 7 out of service after PFAS contaminants were detected at a level higher than the EPA's health advisory on the subject. Five months later, after additional testing, Well No. 8 was also taken offline due to PFAS contamination. In December, the DNR sent the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport a letter identifying it as the "most likely source" of the contamination due to its history of storing and testing firefighting foam and the close proximity of the airport to the wells. (The FAA requires the foam to be tested once a year to ensure its effectiveness in the event of an airplane fire).

The Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport Commission has complied with DNR directives, including the hiring of an environmental consultant, but the members have expressed frustration over the process and skepticism as to whether the contamination was caused by the foam. As of late December, the Commission was studying whether a past practice of disposing of sludge generated by the city's wastewater treatment plant by injecting it into the earth on airport property might have contributed to the contamination.

Under the bill, the use of firefighting foam containing intentionally added PFAS would generally be prohibited except in emergency fire situations. Firefighters would have to train with foam or other substances that don't contain the chemicals. Foam containing PFAS could be used in testing as long as the testing facility has implemented DNR-approved containment and disposal measures to prevent releases into the environment.

Violators would face forfeitures of up to $5,000 per incident.

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