MARINETTE — State Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) joined State Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) this week to introduce a bill which would curb the use of firefighting foam containing poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Wisconsin, a root cause of water contamination occurring in private wells and city wastewater processes in Nygren’s Assembly district. 

Under the legislation proposed by Nygren and Cowles, the use of Class B firefighting foams containing intentionally-added PFAS would be prohibited, with two exceptions. The prohibition does not apply to first responders using the foam in emergency firefighting or fire prevention operations. The foam could also be used for testing purposes, but only if appropriate containment, treatment and disposal methods as determined by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are in place. The bill provides DNR with rule-making authority to set those parameters.

The emerging contaminant family of compounds known as PFAS is a group of substances that can be found in common household products such as stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products, polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products and firefighting foams. PFAS in the Marinette County area originates from local fire suppression system manufacturer Tyco Fire Protection Products/Johnson Controls, which began using the compounds in the 1970s for firefighting foams and sprays, with chemical testing and training at their local testing site in Marinette. The chemicals used seeped into the groundwater, which the company announced in November 2017. Since then, Tyco has been conducting an environmental assessment of its facilities and the surrounding areas in cooperation with the DNR.

A health advisory level (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of two PFAS compounds, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), was set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2016 for drinking water, after studies of the chemicals’ effects over time showed a variety of adverse health effects. Sampling in Marinette County has determined that PFAS compounds are present at levels above the HAL in private Town of Peshtigo wells and in biosolids produced by the cities of Marinette and Peshtigo’s wastewater treatment processes. The biosolids were traditionally spread on local agricultural fields, which introduced the PFAS back into the local water supply. Both cities have ceased biosolid spreading at the request of the DNR and are exploring alternate methods of disposal.

Nygren said he decided to propose a bill regarding the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS after experiencing “a little frustration” with the State of Wisconsin’s long response time when it came to forming a HAL for the compounds. 

“The request for the HAL was 16 months ago,” he said in an interview Friday. “We still don’t have one.” 

Nygren said he understood that PFAS is “an emerging issue,” and has also requested the DNR review the City of Marinette’s permit for spreading biosolids on local agricultural land. He also plans to use his position as co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance to advocate for resources for toxicologists and research funding for the Department of Health Services (DHS). 

As to why Nygren and Cowles chose to focus specifically on PFAS-containing firefighting foams, Nygren said he saw it as “the heart of the local issue.” 

“The product that has seeped into the groundwater here is directly from the use of firefighting foam,” he said. “That’s the product that has created the problem here.” 

Nygren acknowledged that there is a wide array of products that contain PFAS beyond foams, but said he felt the state did not “have a good handle on the emerging impact” regulating all of those products could have. 

This is the second piece of PFAS contamination response legislation authored by Nygren and Cowles this session. The two collaborated earlier this year to author Assembly Bill 85/Senate Bill 109, which calls on the DHS to develop state-based groundwater standards for PFOA and PFOS. 

It’s also the second piece of PFAS response legislation introduced this week, after State Senators Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and Mark Miller (D-Monona) and State Representatives Chris Taylor (D-Madison), Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) and Staush Gruszynski (D-Green Bay) introduced the CLEAR Act (Chemical Level Enforcement and Remediation Act) at an event Thursday in Green Bay with Gov. Tony Evers and DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole. The CLEAR Act takes a more sweeping approach to regulation, and directs the DNR to establish acceptable levels and standards, monitoring requirements and response actions for PFAS chemicals that are determined by the DHS to be harmful to human health for drinking water, groundwater, surface water, air, solid waste, beds of navigable waters and soil and sediment. 

“It goes a great deal further,” Nygren said of the CLEAR Act. “A lot further on a more broad range of chemicals, potentially thousands. The only concern there is, it’s pretty difficult to understand what those implications are at this time.” 

Nygren also said he was concerned about the response time length the state could expect from overloading the DHS with chemicals to research and recommend HALs for. 

On the topic of how Tyco should go about developing a clean water system for residents of the Town of Peshtigo who are dealing with affected wells, Nygren said he would like to see the decision made by the residents. Overall, he hoped more affected residents would come forward with their thoughts because of the conversations that have begun in the Legislature and in proposed bills.