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Wisconsin Water Utilities Point to State PFAS Challenges

Nov. 19, 2019, 11:01 AM

States trying to deal with PFAS contamination in their drinking water may face a new challenge: how to convince water companies to help.

As part of Wisconsin’s push to address pollution from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, Gov. Tony Evers (D) asked wastewater treatment facilities to test for the chemicals so the state can figure out how bad the problem is.

The governor requested the testing to assist the state’s push to develop new water quality standards for the discharge of PFAS to surface water and standards for groundwater and drinking water.

But trade associations representing the treatment facilities rejected the request. They say sampling protocols and lab certification haven’t been completed, and Wisconsin has no PFAS surface water standards, stripping test results of meaning.

Intensifying Conflict

The utilities’ reluctance to test for PFAS could point to an intensifying conflict between water utilities and manufacturers over who is ultimately responsible for what is a growing—and expensive—problem. It also highlights the issues facing states trying to address PFAS contamination on their own, in the absence of a federal mandate to deal with the problem.

The utilities point the finger at the industrial and residential sources of the pollution, saying that should be the first line of defense instead of focusing on wastewater treatment plants where the chemicals may be detected.

“I understand these guys are discharging it from their [water] treatment plants, but in a true sense they are really not releasers of PFAS, they are receivers of it,” Paul Yaroschak, innovation manager at Temple University’s Water and Environmental Technology Center, said about the utilities. “It’s coming downstream from other sources.”

Wisconsin Mulls Rules

Wisconsin doesn’t have state limits on PFAS. Evers wants revisions to groundwater quality statutes and administrative rules on reducing PFAS pollution to begin in January. A public hearing on the proposed revisions was held Nov. 12, with public comments due Nov. 19.

An Evers spokeswoman said the governor was working with municipal plants to address sources of PFAS contamination, without commenting on the pushback to voluntary testing.

PFAS—a group of man-made chemicals that can persist so long in human bodies and the environment they’re referred to as “forever chemicals"—have been used in products like firefighting foam, food packaging, and nonstick cookware. The chemicals can enter the food chain in several ways, including when they migrate into water supplies.

The EPA has linked PFAS to low infant birth weight, negative effects on the immune system, thyroid hormone disruption, and cancer.

Uneven Regulatory Patchwork

Mike Keegan, a National Rural Water Association analyst, said the trend among states is to adopt numerical standards to limit PFAS pollution. But his organization says such standards can be ambiguous and based on differing scientific models, leading to an uneven and inadequate regulatory patchwork across the country.

Still, not all state utilities are opposed to testing.

In North Carolina, for instance, water treatment facilities largely complied with a request for PFAS testing by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

And some North Carolina facilities test and post monitoring data on their websites, said Paul Nyffeler, an AquaLaw Plc lawyer whose firm represents the North Carolina Water Quality Association.

Year of Clean Drinking Water

Evers declared 2019 the year of clean drinking water in Wisconsin, and introduced initiatives aimed at mitigating the harmful effects of water pollutants. It was in that context this summer that he asked 125 municipal wastewater treatment facilities to sample for PFAS in water flowing into and out of their plants.

The Wisconsin League of Municipalities, the Wisconsin Rural Water Association, and the Wisconsin Municipal Environmental Group opposed the request, writing last month that they had advised their members not to sample. They argue no sampling protocols or lab certifications exist to validate any test results.

Instead, the associations said they are encouraging members to identify facilities that may use PFAS, and work with them to reduce PFAS discharges.

“This approach is designed to provide immediate results and is not dependent on first obtaining influent and effluent samples” from water treatment facilities, the letter said.

Reluctance among some to test could be due to uncertainty about the relevance of testing data when no state limits are in place, or the cost of testing, Keegan and others said.

And because of the prevalence of PFAS, the wastewater treatment plants know, “If you sample, you will find it,’” Yaroschak said.

State, Federal Action

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 approved health advisories for two PFAS chemicals, but they’re non-enforceable.

The EPA has promised to issue a determination for two PFAS chemicals by Dec. 31, and based on that, decide whether to develop a national regulation for PFAS in drinking water, an EPA spokeswoman said in an email. Congress is also considering legislation that would force the EPA to hurry up and set a national standard for drinking water.

Meanwhile, states continue to take action on their own.

Maine’s task force will finalize proposals that will likely contain pollution limits no later than Dec. 31; all public drinking water systems with 25 or more people will have to test for the substances.

Vermont adopted advisory limits for PFAS in drinking water, while Massachusetts is developing drinking water standards for PFAS.

—With assistance from Adrianne Appel and David Schultz.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Joyce in Chicago at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Renee Schoof at; Anna Yukhananov at