The EPA has proposed a PFAS drinking water limit much stricter than the state standard — but it’s unclear whether the state has the money to fight the forever chemicals at the new level.
The federal agency has proposed a 4 parts-per-trillion national standard for public water systems, compared to the state’s 70 ppt limit. If approved, the state will have three years to comply. If the state doesn’t comply, the EPA will implement the limits in the state by working with public water systems as required under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Steve Elmore, DNR director of drinking water and groundwater in the environmental management division, told WisPolitics federal funding would help defray the costs. The state is set to receive an estimated $152.8 million in PFAS infrastructure program funding for municipalities through fiscal year 2027, including $12.8 million for 2023.
Elmore said the state would likely need more money, considering the amount of PFAS detected in states like Michigan that have tested all their public water systems.
“Just looking at those numbers, I do expect that we will likely have more need for treatment systems and new wells than we currently have money for,” Elmore said.
PFAS are a series of chemicals found in industrial and everyday products, including firefighting foam and non-stick cookware. They do not break down easily in the environment and are linked to several diseases and cancers in humans. PFAS have been detected in public water systems in at least 22 counties across the state, according to DNR data.
Remediation costs will likely be even higher once the state implements the new federal standard.
Potential for bipartisan compromise to address PFAS, though some GOP concerns remain
Gov. Tony Evers has proposed more than $106 million to combat PFAS contamination in his 2023-2025 budget, including $100 million for a municipal grant program to help local governments pay for PFAS testing and mitigation.
Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee Chair Rob Cowles, who supports the investment, said he is still in talks with GOP colleagues about the measure.
“We think that there’s a strong possibility that something significant will happen here,” the Green Bay Republican told WisPolitics.
He said that could mean approving Evers’ proposed PFAS investments, or possibly introducing a separate bill to provide funding. Cowles said some of his colleagues have concerns about how the money will be allocated, such as how much will go toward remediation and testing.
“I think there’s nervousness about just having one big fund out there without specifying, coming up with reasonable estimates for the different categories,” Cowles said.
The projected costs for the Department of Health Services-recommended 20 ppt limit over the first two years were higher than the estimated costs of the 70 ppt the state Natural Resources Board approved, though the first-year monitoring costs were the same.
The DNR estimated first year one-time costs for monitoring and mitigation under the 20 ppt standard at $5.6 million and $3.7 million in the year after, compared to $2.5 million in one-time costs in the first year for the 70 ppt limit, and $937,638 the year after.
Public water systems can be eligible for six-year monitoring waivers or three-year routine monitoring. The DNR has estimated a cost of $375 per well. An estimated 90 percent of the state’s public water systems, 2,602 total, are eligible for the six-year waiver, amounting to a total cost of $975,750 every six years. An estimated 10 percent of the state’s water systems, 289 of them, are eligible for three-year routine monitoring totaling $108,375 every three years.
So far, the DNR estimates municipalities have spent about $65,000 on 174 total samples since the 70 ppt rule went into effect in August.
The agency previously estimated a cost of at least $25 million to treat a large municipal public water system for PFAS, with lower costs for smaller systems. The agency noted some systems may be able to drill a new well into an uncontaminated aquifer. The costs for doing that for a non-transient non-community water system is about $11,000, the agency estimated. A non-transient non-community water system is one that serves at least 25 of the same people over six months of the year, such as at schools, factories or hospitals that provide their own water.
Cowles said making sure there is enough money to help municipalities cover costs is his “number one priority.”
Fourteen municipalities have requested funding to pay for PFAS projects in 2024 under the Safe Drinking Water Loan Program, which is funded in part with money from the bipartisan infrastructure law. The program helps municipalities fund projects such as temporary or permanent water treatment systems, new public wells, creating new public water systems and regionalizing systems with a neighboring municipality.
The requests for the coming year amount to more than $405.9 million in expected costs, an average cost of $29 million per municipality. The actual cost is likely lower as some are competing requests, according to a DNR fact sheet provided to Cowles’ office.
“We think that there’s enough money there in the fund for the 14 that have applied, but then if this goes into effect, how many more would apply?” Cowles said of the proposed standard.
The deadline for applications is June 30. It will take about two to three years to implement the federal standard at the state level once it becomes official, Elmore said.
Senate Natural Resources and Energy Vice Chair Eric Wimberger told WisPolitics he isn’t sure the money Evers has proposed will be enough to meet demand if the federal standard is implemented.
“It’s just a request for a giant pile of cash, and there’s not exactly a coherent plan submitted with it. And so I don’t know where he came up with that number or why,” the Green Bay Republican said.
Wimberger didn’t directly say whether he supports the proposal but said he would do the legwork to find out what the state needs.
Wimberger said he has concerns about implementing the EPA’s 4 ppt standard, noting the DNR allows biosolids, or organic matter recycled from sewers, containing less than 150,000 ppt of PFAS to be spread on fields. He criticized the agency for not maintaining a database about contamination stemming from biosolids or wastewater.
“So without a database to know where your problems are, it’s hard to dial into what it might cost to remediate,” he said.
State could seek funding through legislation, settlement dollars
Rep. Katrina Shankland told WisPolitics the state will likely need to rely on the federal government for financial support. The Stevens Point Dem added she believes the state needs a bill similar to the bipartisan infrastructure law to support municipal utilities.
Shankland said she “absolutely” supports Evers’ PFAS budget proposal, calling it a “great first step” toward supporting local governments, as they are likely to need more financial support down the road. Shankland said it’s hard to know if the state will need more funding beyond the more than $106 million.
“What we do know now is that there are dozens of communities that have tested and there are many communities in Wisconsin that are grappling with this,” she said. “It’s not going to go away. The more we test, the more we will find.”
Shankland also said the state could use settlement money to support remediation efforts. Attorney General Josh Kaul has a pending lawsuit against Tyco Fire Products and Johnson Controls alleging the companies failed to notify the state of PFAS discharges in Marinette and did not remediate the contamination. Kaul has also filed a lawsuit against 18 companies, including Tyco Fire Products, for PFAS contamination.
Shankland said her GOP colleagues seem more understanding about the negative health effects of PFAS. She said Republicans will have an incentive to support the 4 ppt limit after arguing the federal government should decide the limit when they rejected a Dem bill that would have codified a 20 ppt standard.
She said Republicans “at a bare minimum” need to support additional funding for testing and remediation for local communities, but said prevention is also essential.
“I think now that the political climate has changed a little bit on this issue,” Shankland said. I’m going to continue reaching out to my colleagues across the aisle to see if there’s an appetite for funding, not only the governor’s budget, but additional support for prevention.”
Read more about PFAS-related proposals in Evers’ budget in a previous Friday Report.