Republican lawmakers want to rein in environmental regulators and restrict their ability to regulate firefighting foam containing so-called forever chemicals known as PFAS. They’re seeking to do away with parts of an emergency rule and introduce a bill that would limit efforts to properly treat foam containing PFAS.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources crafted an emergency rule to enforce restrictions under a bill that was signed into law earlier this year. The law, which took effect in September, bans the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS except in emergencies. The chemicals have been linked to cancer and other health problems.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) is set to meet Friday to take up motions that would suspend parts of the rule, including numeric levels that would measure effective removal of PFAS from foam. Only invited speakers will be allowed to testify at the public hearing on the rule.
The rule, approved by the Natural Resources Board, allows the agency to set PFAS indicator levels for treating foam before discharging to sewers or waterways. Those levels, although they are currently not enforceable, would be used as a trigger for systems to make adjustments to provide effective treatment.
The move by lawmakers would effectively eliminate any sort of target that a system would use to gauge whether treatment is removing PFAS to a level that’s safe enough for release into the environment.
A bill would also be introduced into the State Senate and Assembly to support suspending parts of the rule. It would prevent the agency from putting any rule into effect that would apply to materials that are contaminated with PFAS-containing foam, define treatment as requiring total removal and destruction of a contaminant, require those treating foam to provide notice of any discharge, and set indicator levels for treatment.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, and Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, co-chairs of JCRAR, submitted comments to the Natural Resources Board this summer that said the DNR appeared to be going beyond their authority.
At the time, they said the proposed levels for treatment set up a situation “where the wastewater discharge from an on-site treatment facility has to be cleaner than drinking water.” They highlighted that some of the PFAS action levels used to gauge effective treatment were stricter than the recommended groundwater standard of 20 parts per trillion.
Industry groups like the American Chemistry Council and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) have opposed the agency’s proposed PFAS action levels under the rule.
They argued the DNR was overstepping its authority and rejected the agency’s claims that the numeric targets aren’t enforceable. Scott Manley, executive vice president of government relations for WMC, told the Natural Resources Board in October that facilities would have to stop discharges and make changes to their treatment system if they exceeded those action levels.
Environmental groups have supported the DNR’s emergency rule, saying the treatment levels are necessary to protect public health.