Late-night Assembly push targeting PFAS could face roadblocks in Wisconsin Senate

By: Briana Reilly, The Cap Times 

A hasty push early Friday morning to target PFAS contamination may have cleared the Wisconsin Assembly, but it appears likely to face hurdles in the state Senate. 

Lawmakers just after midnight voted 62-35 along party lines to amend a bill to add in the language aiming to combat PFAS pollution before quickly adjourning during the chamber's final planned floor period of the session.  

The late-night change came as two comprehensive bipartisan bills from Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, that carry a $7.7 million price tag have stalled in the Legislature amid opposition from industry groups, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, that say they weren't consulted in the drafting process. 

That led Nygren, who has described his home city of Marinette and nearby Peshtigo as the "epicenter of PFAS contamination in Wisconsin," to seek the amendment, an effort he can also tout to his constituents. 

The state has seen increased attention paid to emerging contaminants including PFAS, a group of chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive problems and a host of other health issues.

Nygren on the Assembly floor early Friday morning said while the language wasn't the bill he originally proposed that's facing "scare tactics" employed by opponents, it was still "a step forward that will help my constituents" and others across the state.

"I don't want to walk away from this opportunity without providing some answers — maybe not the ones I completely desire — but some answers and certainty for my constituents," he added.

But Democrats, including Rep. Katrina Shankland, countered the language would "kneecap" the Department of Natural Resources' ability to address the issue and instead called for the state to pursue "real PFAS reform." 

"This issue isn’t just about Marinette and Peshtigo," said the Stevens Point Democrat, who served as the Water Quality Task Force's vice chair this session. "It came to light there first, but it’s going to be everywhere that we can test for contamination near airports and fire departments and volunteer fire departments and other locations."

Under the amendment, which all Republicans signed off on after a more than hour-long caucus on the issue late Thursday night, the DNR would be required to promulgate emergency rules to create framework for certifying labs to test for PFAS, as well as test for the contaminants in municipal water systems and private wells.

The agency would also need to request additional dollars to address PFAS in the next budget. But it doesn’t appear the bill would impose benchmarks or direct the DNR to implement any standards or restrictions for chemicals in water. 

While Democrats called on the chamber to take up Nygren's and Hansen's original bills, which sought to home in on already-polluted areas and ways to address existing contamination, the effort failed. 

Representatives tied to some of the industry groups that oppose that legislation didn't weigh in on the new amendment. A WMC spokesman declined comment, while the Wisconsin Paper Council didn't return an email. 

Meanwhile, Hansen in a statement Friday slammed the language as "a complete turnaround from the compromise that sought to hold local taxpayers harmless for the costs of cleanup."

"In what appears to be an attempt to fool less informed residents, many of the actions the amendment calls for can already be taken by DNR and the department does not need permission to ask Governor Evers to include funding to address PFAS in his upcoming budget," Hansen said. 

And at least one Republican senator isn't happy with the addition. 

A spokesman for Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who crafted the bill Assembly Republicans amended, said that including the PFAS measure "complicates our bill." 

"It's certainly going to make a mess of how the Senate and Assembly deal with that issue," spokesman Mike Mikalsen said of tackling PFAS contamination. 

Nass' bill deals with lake districts, or districts made up of property owners adjacent to a lake that seek to protect or rehabilitate the surrounding area. Those districts purchase services or products, including studies and programs surrounding water quality issues and more. 

Under current law, whenever those purchases exceed $2,500, they're required to be bid out to the lowest offer. The legislation would raise that threshold, which Nass' office said hasn't been increased since 1978, to $10,000.

Mikalsen also argued the amendment Assembly Republicans adopted wasn't relevant to the original bill and the action was one the Whitewater Republican didn't think is appropriate. 

"We're not Washington, D.C. where we take unrelated bills and roll them in," Mikalsen said, adding Nass is now considering amending some Assembly bills to add in his priorities, such as the long-sought proposal to crack down on so-called "sanctuary cities." 

Neither Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald's office, nor spokeswomen for Gov. Tony Evers, immediately returned requests for comment Friday. 

There has been separate movement on PFAS already this year. Both the Senate and Assembly approved a bill to limit the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS, which Evers later signed. 

The governor also highlighted the topic in his State of the State speech, when he urged lawmakers to get the so-called forever chemicals “out of our water.”

The Assembly on Tuesday also passed a slate of water quality bills that includes a measure targeting PFAS. The legislation would provide $250,000 in one-time funding for the collection of firefighting foam that contains the "forever chemicals." 

But it and the dozen other bills from the state's task force would have to clear the state Senate before getting to the governor's desk.