EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
David Behrend, Town of Morgan, speaks to the progress of legislators and industry in addressing PFAS contamination. 
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard

David Behrend, Town of Morgan, speaks to the progress of legislators and industry in addressing PFAS contamination. 

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MARINETTE — Disappointment, frustration and anger reverberated at the latest Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) PFAS information session at the City of Marinette Community REC Center on Wednesday. The focus of that frustration zeroed in on industry and leaders at the state and federal level in relation to ground-breaking PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) legislation currently working through the State of Wisconsin legislative process.  

Emotions first surfaced during Wednesday when news that two bipartisan bills that represent the far-reaching regulation of PFAS may likely die in Assembly when the current Assembly legislative session ends today. Those bills, AB842 and AB843 (formerly SB772 and SB773 while in the Senate) were authored by State Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, and State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, after months of bipartisan negotiation. 

“It is my understanding that the bills have not been scheduled for a vote (in the Assembly) for what is likely going to be the last (Assembly) session (on Thursday),” announced DNR Bureau Director for Remediation and Redevelopment Christine Haag. “What that means is that it (appears), at this point, that the Assembly could adjourn for the session without taking up the bill. And then the bill dies.”

According to the Assembly schedule, today is the last floor period for action on bills unless Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, decide to schedule a special session.

Doug Oitzinger, former City of Marinette mayor, who testified in support of the bills Feb. 7 during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy at the State Capitol, was the first to voice frustration during Wednesday’s PFAS information session. He placed blame with various industry representatives and lobbyists who also testified in opposition during that same hearing. 

“You may have read the stories about this bipartisan legislation — and we were really hopeful,” Oitzinger said. “I can’t tell you how bad this is, that you make it all the way to a bipartisan bill and it dies. And if you would have been at those hearings and heard who was against it ... industry killed it.” 

During that same Feb. 7 hearing, Scott Manley, executive vice president for Government Relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), spoke in opposition to the bills. At Wednesday’s PFAS session, several attendees named WMC by name when referring to the various groups and industries expressing opposition. 

“We will provide the input we can to ensure that we ultimately end up with rules that balance environmental and public health interests with economic and cost concerns,” Manley said during the Feb. 7 hearing. 

AB842 and AB843, provide for the protection of Wisconsin citizens through some of the most stringent and far-reaching PFAS-related regulatory measures enacted in the state — and perhaps, the nation, according to its authors. Effectively, both bills are part of the same legislative goal, however, one covers financing issues while the other deals with the regulatory language; and they represent a bipartisan and rigorously achieved compromise on the CLEAR Act.

Primary components in the bills included the creation and funding of two pilot programs: the first involves the determination of PFAS blood levels via free blood testing for Marinette and surrounding area residents affected by the PFAS contamination from Tyco Fire Products LP, fire training facility. The second program involves a cancer cluster study of that same area. Additionally, the bills provide for additional DNR and Department of Health Services staffing and financing to conduct investigation and research directly related to PFAS. 

PFAS has been used since the mid-1900s in a variety of industrial and commercial products such as Teflon, non-stick cookware, fast-food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and fire-fighting foams. Since that time, strong evidence emerged that suggested a probable link between PFAS exposure and several adverse and serious health impacts such as thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Other area residents attending Wednesday’s DNR meeting narrowed the culpability for the bills potential death of the bills in Assembly by calling out those individuals charged with the responsibility of representing the people of Wisconsin.

Marinette resident Wendel Johnson echoed Oitzinger’s comments regarding the bipartisan nature of the bill. Moreover, he expressed astonishment that after such a bipartisan effort and such strong constituent support, the bills may likely fail to reach the governor’s desk.  

“It’s amazing that these bills didn’t make it out (of Assembly),” Johnson said. “The man who represents (the Marinette area) in the Assembly is one of the most powerful politicians in the legislature. And if he (Rep. Nygren) can’t come up with support for this, and get this through, we really need to consider who we vote for the next time around. This guy is impotent in helping us with problems regarding PFAS.”

Dave Behrend from the Town of Morgan, also offered severe criticism for Nygren. 

“(Nygren) thinks for the industry, he does not think for us,” Behrend said. “He thinks for the dollar. He does not think for us.”

POTENTIAL FOR HOPE OR HOPELESS

Depending to whom one speaks, the chance that the bills are placed on the Assembly agenda for today ranges from extremely slim to slightly better than slim. 

Chief of Staff for Nygren’s office Nathan Schwanz cautioned writing off the bills completely, explaining that Nygren plans to continue his efforts to persuade legislatures to vote on the bills today at the Capitol. Schwanz offered a narrow window of hope that the Assembly may still add AB842/AB843 to their agenda. As of Wednesday evening, the bills had not yet been added to the agenda.  

“I wouldn’t call the bills dead, but there is certainly some opposition (to them) on the floor,” Schwanz told the EagleHerald Wednesday. “John (Nygren) is still pushing to get these bills (on the floor).” 

Schawnz pointed out that Nygren met with legislative leadership Tuesday, trying to drum up support for AB842/AB843.  However, Schwanz could offer no absolutes when it comes to the odds that the bills will make it to the Assembly floor today, the last day that the Assembly convenes this session. 

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “I don’t know with 100% certainty ... Regardless, (Rep. Nygren) wants to get these (bills) done; and he is pushing to get a vote and get them over the finish line.” 

Nygren issued a statement Wednesday night, urging Majority Assembly Leader Steineke and Assembly Speaker Vos to schedule the bills for a vote on the Assembly floor today. 

“I hope my colleagues understand the gravity of the situation in Marinette and Peshtigo and other areas of the state,” Nygren stated. “Residents in these areas have had their drinking water contaminated at no fault of their own and we should act quickly to stop the flow of these potentially harmful chemicals into drinking water. 

However, on the other side of the political aisle, Hansen’s office weighed on the chances that the bills make it across the finish line with a more doubtful forecast.  Jay Wadd, chief of staff for Hansen, explained that because today is slated as the last day of the year that the Assembly remains in session, the bills are unlikely to see the governor’s pen and become law. He expressed frustration with opposition groups such as the WMC

“This is really disappointing because this was the time,” Wadd said, referring to all the effort and support garnered for the bills. “I don’t know that we will get another opportunity to get a bill passed that is as comprehensive. I’ve been in this business (government legislation) for a long time; I think it is safe to say the bills are dead.”

As of Wednesday night, the most recent action taken on AB842/AB843 occurred on Tuesday. However, AB842/AB843 had not yet been placed on the schedule for today. 

The EagleHerald will continue to follow developments.