It’s a start. That about sums up the attitude of La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynods, after news that the federal government is going to start getting involved in dealing with PFAS contamination.
PFAS chemicals have polluted many of the private wells on French Island, forcing residents there to use bottled water “indefinitely,” the Wisconsin DNR said last week, at an estimated cost of $550,000-$600,000 a year.
“I do appreciate the federal government finally getting involved,” Reynolds told WIZM. “The EPA’s first steps with this plan moving forward. I think, again, a good first step. It’s a good opportunity to hold manufacturers accountable for the chemicals that are all over the United States in various places.”
— Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances —
PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because of how they accumulate in the body and persist in the environment without fully breaking down. Not only are PFAS found in firefighting foams, but also household products such as non-stick cookware and packaging. PFAS are linked to cancer, reproductive problems and a host of other health issues.
The key there, however, is first steps. The Biden Administration put out a three-year roadmap to address PFAS “to safeguard public health, protect the environment, and hold polluters accountable.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking a multi-faceted approach in how to fight PFAS in the food system, in our bodies and in the environment — which is daunting task for something that’s called “Forever Chemicals.” Here’s a look at the EPA’s approach:
That roadmap, however, did not contain the words “firefighting foam,” which may be where the mess on French Island started — its use at the airport.
“It’s disappointing that there was, at least as far as I could read, no mandate that, for instance, the Department of Defense or the FAA discontinue the requirement to use PFAS foam in firefighting,” Reynolds said. “That was a disappointment.”
French Island has been enduring this dilemma for most of the year. City wells near the airport were shut down in 2016 and in the spring of 2019. Over 500 private wells have been found to be polluted, as 1,200 households and about 4,300 residents are getting bottled water.
If there were ever a time for a government bailout of sorts, it would be now, and for people.
“Any regulatory burden for localities needs to come with some level of federal funding.” Reynolds said. “This is just an enormous problem and will be throughout the nation.
“And we need to have some level of understanding that the federal government has some skin in the game — beyond just creating regulations. That there’s some actual resources to help treat and remediate.”
Holding manufacturers responsible is one thing, but where does that leave communities in the meantime? How many years would PFAS lawsuits be tied up in court?
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers had a $25 million, multi-step plan to deal with PFAS in his original state budget that included:
- Standards for PFAS.
- Measures to force businesses found to have released the chemicals into the environment to take responsibility.
- Funding for certified PFAS testing labs and hazardous substance discharge investigations.
- The GOP also eliminated 11 scientist positions at the DNR, that would have tested all public water systems for the chemicals, and created a PFAS testing lab.
Republicans stripped it down to $1 million for collection of firefighting foam from over 800 fire departments across the state.
Republicans legislators in Wisconsin did try to start a $10 million grant program to clean up contamination. But they added a provision to protect manufacturers responsible for the PFAS mess, basically saying that whoever took grant money couldn’t sue those responsible for the pollution.
“I can’t say for certain what’s going on with state government,” Reynolds said. “It’s always somewhat of a puzzling situation in Madison, with how they operate.
“But I would anticipate that there’s more efforts taken by, if not the legislature, then at least the governor to also up his game, if you will, in helping communities, like La Crosse and Eau Claire, and many others around the state deal with with these chemicals.”