Editor’s Note: A follow-up story about further efforts and sentiments on PFAS regulation efforts will be in Thursday’s EagleHerald. 

GREEN BAY — A letter written by attorney Robert Bilott, dated March 6, 2001, appealed for urgency, action and regulation by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and various other governmental entities in West Virginia. The 19-page letter addressed “thousands of tons” chemical waste dumped over the span of many years into a landfill located in Wood County, West Virginia. It also detailed the subsequent environmental, agricultural and human health impacts that followed downstream along a creek running past the landfill.  

Bilott was writing on behalf of a farmer who filed suit against E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. after its West Virginia factory discharged an “essentially unregulated” and “confirmed animal carcinogen” known as ammonium perflourooctanoate, after witnessing various and serious health effects to his livestock and family members.  

Today those chemicals go by the acronyms C-8, APFO, PFOA and others, representing a much larger family of chemicals collectively called per- and polyfluoroalkly substances, or PFAS.  

EARLY STEPS TO PFAS REGULATION

Almost two decades after Bilott’s letter to the EPA, notifying the agency of their existence and confirmed link to adverse health effects in animals, and now in humans, the State of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources continues taking steps down the long road to setting potential standards for PFAS regulation. If its effort unfold as planned, it could provide additional leverage in enforcing PFAS levels (primarily PFOA and PFOS) for three modes of exposure: groundwater, surface water and drinking water. 

Currently, the State of Wisconsin maintains no existing PFAS standards for any exposure mode; and the EPA only established a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water for PFOA and PFOS in 2016.  

A simulcast public hearing Tuesday, broadcast between Madison, Green Bay and Eau Claire, opened the very preliminary Statements of Scope regarding the rule-making process for standards that regulate PFAS levels and analysis. The hearing allowed the DNR to gather comments from interested parties about potential PFAS rule changes.

DNR Environmental Toxicologist Meghan Williams, who represents the scope statement for surface water, pointed out that from start to finish, any standards that are ultimately implemented by legislature may not take effect until the summer of 2022. 

“There are a lot of things that may affect some of the duration of some of these (rule-making) processes,” Williams said. “So of course, (this timeline) is tentative … but I would like to emphasize that there are going to be a lot of opportunities for public input.” 

INPUT SUPPORTING RULE CHANGE

At each location, several interested parties took the opportunity to voice support or opposition concerning PFAS surface water quality criteria, groundwater standards and drinking water maximum contaminant levels. 

Casey Hicks of De Pere, attended the hearing from the Green Bay location. Prior to the meeting, he explained to the EagleHerald his personal reasons for urging stricter PFAS regulation. He knows several people in the Marinette area affected by the resulting PFAS contamination plume that originated from the Tyco Fire Products LP facility. He said some of those individuals experienced health effects possibly related to PFAS. Additionally, many continue to deal with the foams in nearby ponds, ditches and rivers. 

“Just from my understanding of PFAS and how prevalent they are in our everyday products and everyday lives … it makes me very concerned,” Hicks said. “I am in support of the scope statements for all three rules. I believe we need to begin setting standards at the state level because at the federal level it is going to take anywhere from eight to 10 years for the EPA to set any kind of standard ... And a lot of people don’t have that kind of time. I believe the DNR is the best authority to be making those rules.”

INPUT OPPOSING RULE CHANGE 

Not every interested party supported the DNR’s Statements of Scope.

Executive Vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Scott Manley spoke on behalf of the Wisconsin Water Quality Coalition, which represents various business and industry groups such as the American Chemistry Council, Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, Wisconsin Paper Council and others.

“Our coalition recognizes the importance of setting reasonable and science-based regulatory criteria for compounds shown to be harmful to human health,” Manley said. “However we cannot support these scope statements as proposed and urge the board to either amend them or send them back to the department for amendment.”

In justifying the coalition’s position, Manley pointed out that PFAS represents a family of over 4,000 chemical compounds. While agreeing that scientific evidence exists to support correlations between legacy compounds like PFOS and PFOA – used since the mid-20th Century –  and their adverse health impacts on humans when exposed to “very high levels,” he maintained that not all PFAS compounds present such hazards. He cited further justification, stating that that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves some PFAS for use in food packaging.

Additionally, the coalition argued that the DNR’s scope statement made it unclear as to which PFAS compounds that any future regulations would address. Would standards cover just the legacy compounds, PFOS and PFOA, or the entire family PFAS compounds? He underscored that such a lack of specificity and detail makes it difficult for the legislature, the business community and the general public to adequately understand what the department proposes — or might propose — for regulation.   

“At this stage we don’t believe it is appropriate for the DNR to establish health-based statements for PFAS substances the Department of Health has not studied from a health standpoint,” Manley said. “Especially, when there is the potential for 4,000 more substances.” 

But when it comes to regulation, 2022 is not soon enough.