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Democrat Wisconsin governor signals he won’t sign bill to fight forever chemicals as legislative session ends

Democratic Gov. Tony Ever's veto on a bill to fight PFAS or "forever chemicals" means that the $125M set aside by lawmakers will remain unspent.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signaled Wednesday that he has no intention of signing a Republican bill that would spend tens of millions of dollars to address pollution from the so-called forever chemicals known as PFAS because it dramatically scales back regulators’ enforcement authority.

The Senate passed the bill in November and the Assembly was expected to follow suit on Thursday and send the legislation to the governor. Time is running out for any sort of compromise. Thursday is the Assembly’s last scheduled floor period of the two-year legislative session. Evers’ stance means that $125 million that Republicans set aside in the latest state budget to fight PFAS contamination will remain unspent.

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PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that don’t easily break down in nature. They are found in a wide range of products, including cookware and stain-resistant clothing, and previously were often used in aviation fire-suppression foam. The chemicals have been linked to health problems including low birth weight, cancer and liver disease, and have been shown to make vaccines less effective.

Municipalities across Wisconsin are struggling with PFAS contamination in groundwater, including Marinette, Madison, Wausau and the town of Campbell on French Island. The waters of Green Bay also are contaminated.

Lee Donahue, a town of Campbell supervisor, said residents there have been using bottled water for four years. She opposes the bill because it weakens the state’s enforcement authority and wants to see the state ban PFAS, set PFAS groundwater limits and find another way to get the $125 million to municipalities. But she’s questioning whether anything will get done.

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“It’s a tremendous level of frustration,” she said. “Sadly enough, a lot of these things have become partisan issues. We can’t move forward with the process. People are tired of waiting for the next session and the next session and the next session.”

The bill would create grants for cities, towns, villages, private landowners and waste disposal facilities to test for PFAS in water treatment plans and wells. The grants would be funded with the $125 million in the state budget.

The state Department of Natural Resources — an Evers cabinet agency — would need landowners’ permission to test their water for PFAS. The agency would be responsible for remediation at contaminated sites where the responsible party is unknown or can’t pay for the work.

The DNR also would be prohibited from taking any enforcement action against landowners who spread PFAS in compliance with a license or permit to do so or own land contaminated through legal manure spreading. Landowners who allow the DNR to remediate contaminated property at the state’s expense would be immune from enforcement action.

Evers balked at the DNR restrictions when bill was introduced last year. The bill’s chief Senate sponsors, Eric Wimberger and Rob Cowles, asked Evers in a Feb. 15 letter not to let a chance to address PFAS slip away. They said that the DNR restrictions are designed to ensure the agency can’t fine or hold landowners liable for contamination that they didn’t cause. The bill doesn’t protect actual polluters, they stressed.

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“We have an opportunity now to help Wisconsinites with their health concerns and the environment, and do it without forcing them to choose personal economic ruin in the process,” Wimberger and Cowles wrote.

Evers said in a letter to the senators Wednesday that Republicans don’t want to hold polluters accountable and haven’t made any changes to the bill to win his support.

He also criticized the GOP for forcing the DNR to stop developing limits on PFAS in Wisconsin groundwater.

The DNR needs such standards to serve as the basis for enforcement actions, but the agency announced in December it had to stop drafting them under a 2017 state law that requires state agencies to obtain legislators’ permission to continue work on regulations if projected compliance costs top $10 million over any two-year period. Republicans haven’t granted the DNR for permission to continue and have refused Evers’ request to make an exception to the law for PFAS.

The governor also pointed out in his letter that the Legislature’s Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee could release the $125 million at any time.

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“I again urge you to get serious about helping our impacted communities by urging your colleagues on the Joint Committee on Finance to approve the DNR’s request,” Evers wrote.

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