PFAS Update: Senate Natural Resources Committee Holds Informational Hearing

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy held a public hearing on PFAS on January 31. The hearing was for information only (no specific bills were discussed) and featured select speakers invited by committee chair Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay). During the hearing, Sen. Cowles stated that the Legislature will take action on PFAS this session, without providing specific details.

Christy Remucal, a UW-Madison professor and researcher, explained some of the science behind PFAS and how it enters the environment (slide deck). Sen. Robert Wirch (D-Somers) asked Remucal about the “share of responsibility” for PFAS contamination and what can be done to fix it. She replied that firefighting foam containing PFAS has been the major source of contamination in many places, whether from manufacturing, testing, or deployment of the foam. She also noted that PFAS can be difficult to destroy and even if the substances are filtered out of water, the filter or leftover material must be destroyed or landfilled.

The second speaker was David Johnson, executive vice president of North Shore Environmental Construction, a contractor specializing in environmental cleanup (slide deck). Under a contract with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), North Shore has collected and disposed of about 20,000 gallons of PFAS firefighting foam across 45 counties. He noted that many smaller fire departments across the state have a small amount of PFAS foam on hand and are reluctant to give it up in case they need it for a serious fire. Johnson also reminded legislators that federal regulators still require airports to have PFAS foam on hand for firefighting.

A local government coalition including three groups spoke next (slide deck). The common theme among the three speakers was the inability of most municipalities to afford to treat or remediate drinking water and wastewater to bring PFAS concentrations down to the levels set by federal and state rules or health advisories.

Toni Herkert, government affairs director for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, reviewed what some cities have spent to date to deal with PFAS in their drinking and wastewater systems. In Eau Claire, so far, PFAS treatment has cost $1.5 million. The cost estimate for a new water treatment facility capable of removing PFAS is $24 million. Wausau has built a new drinking water treatment plant for about $40 million and is spending $80 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant. The city will also spend $15-20 million building a granulated activated carbon (GAC) system to filter PFAS. Herkert suggested the state provide seed funding for a revolving loan fund to help municipalities finance PFAS treatment projects.

Vanessa Wishart, an attorney specializing in environmental law, represented the Municipal Environmental Group-Wastewater Division at the hearing. She estimated that source reduction at public wastewater facilities (such as installing and maintaining a GAC filtration system) will cost tens of thousands of dollars at each facility. She also estimated that building a new treatment plant including PFAS removal capabilities is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars.

Chris Groh is the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Water Association, an organization representing small town and rural water utilities with less than 10,000 subscribers. He stated that there is no local budget in most small communities for PFAS remediation and cleanup costs; simply building a new well could cost $1-2 million, a huge burden for a small utility. He noted that DNR and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are considering lower standards for PFAS in drinking and groundwater and encouraged regulators to also consider the costs and feasibility of reducing PFAS levels to meet those standards. Finally, he explained that water cleanup involves a chain of levels costs, such as paying to properly dispose of water filters and wastewater sludge.

Jim Zellmer, administrator of the DNR Environmental Management Division, began by reviewing DNR’s efforts related to PFAS and explained Gov. Tony Evers’ (D) upcoming 2023-25 budget proposal related to PFAS (slide deck). In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Evers said his budget will propose spending $106 million to “support municipalities in responding to local PFAS contamination, bolster staff and resources at [DNR], and increase PFAS testing, sampling, and monitoring.” His budget will also include new regulatory standards for PFAS. The governor included some similar proposals in his 2021-23 budget.

In response to questions from Sen. Cowles, Zellmer noted that firefighting foam used at airports and military installations is likely the main source of PFAS at many sites in Wisconsin. Zellmer said that the agency is requesting additional staff in the upcoming budget to work specifically on PFAS cleanup, including sampling and testing, conducting site investigations, and developing and reviewing remediation plans.