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Wisconsin battles waste plants that spread hazardous PFAS

Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin wastewater plants were built to keep pollutants out of the environment, but state regulators have come to recognize they may also be spreading hazardous industrial chemicals in ways that increase health risks.

Normal sewage treatment kills bacteria but can’t touch highly fluorinated chemicals known by the acronym PFAS (pronounced “pea-fass”), which have been predicted to be one of the biggest public health threats in coming decades.

PFAS typically enter the human body in drinking water contaminated by the heaviest users of the chemicals — military bases, fire departments and manufacturers. One route PFAS takes to drinking water is through users’ sewer drains.

Miles of underground sewer lines carry the virtually indestructible synthetic compounds to publicly owned sewage plants, which release them with treated wastewater into public waters, as well as in the form of treated sewage sludge that is applied as fertilizer to farm fields.

Operators of the sorts of treatment plants that handle industrial waste are faced with serious difficulties because the state has fallen behind others in setting easily enforceable standards for PFAS, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

In one of several attempts to catch up, regulators at the state Department of Natural Resources said earlier this month they plan to ask more than 170 public treatment plants with industrial customers to test treated wastewater for 36 kinds of PFAS.

Treatment plants have options. Local ordinances — like the one governing the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District — allow them to halt industrial releases of hazardous materials. Still, enforcement can be harder at the local level than if it were being done under state or federal standards, especially if polluters resist possibly costly regulations meant to ensure the proper disposal of PFAS.

A Madison sewerage district “action plan,” dated June 4, calls on managers to study rules adopted recently to curtail releases of PFAS. Local officials may decide in about six months whether to add PFAS restrictions to pollution limits that are already in place for 19 industrial customers, a spokeswoman said. An educational effort to reduce releases from other sources may also be mounted.

For now, though, district managers said they want to see more research on PFAS risks and hear more advice on testing. They point out that PFAS disposal is costly and troublesome. And they are lobbying for federal PFAS standards, questioning how strict the limits need to be, and seeking assurances that land parcels contaminated with “low levels” of PFAS won’t be declared Superfund sites that carry cleanup costs and public stigma.

“We’re taking this issue very seriously,” said Micheal Mucha, Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District chief engineer and director. “There are a lot of interests at play here, and for us to be making these kinds of decisions not knowing all the facts is an uncomfortable area to be in.”

It will be important to stop any contamination at its source, Mucha said. If the district couldn’t annually spread its 37 million gallons of sewage sludge — called biosolids — on 5,000 acres of fields where crops are grown to feed farm animals, disposing of it would be costly. Removing PFAS from sludge and incinerating it would increase costs while still posing environmental risks, he said.

A conservationist who helped bring to light PFAS contamination in Madison said there’s no excuse for not testing wastewater, especially considering the high price farmers can pay if their crops are found to be contaminated.

“There’s also a high cost in the health of the wildlife and humans exposed to the PFAS that enters the food chain or eventually washes off these fields into waterways and fish,” said Maria Powell, director of Midwest Environmental Justice Organization. “Which costs are more important? Who should bear the burden of these costs?”

Mucha said there’s uncertainty about how to test wastewater for PFAS. But the DNR water quality manager Adrian Stocks said the state Laboratory of Hygiene can analyze water, soil or biosolids for PFAS. The DNR was expected this summer to adopt final standards for use in private labs.

No matter how much or little PFAS is in sewage from industries in the Madison area, there’s no doubt that the bulk of the water from nine PFAS-tainted city wells is going down drains in houses and businesses to the treatment plant, Powell said.

“Shouldn’t the priority be on assessing how much PFAS is coming into the plant, being released from the plant into waterways and being spread on farmland?” Powell said. “We need this information as soon as possible to assess risks to public and environmental health.”

One Wisconsin city, Marinette, stopped distributing its sludge to farmers after it tested a sewer line coming from a Johnson Controls subsidiary, Tyco Fire Products, which manufactures PFAS-based firefighting foam that has contaminated drinking water.

Despite steps intended to prevent further contamination, PFAS was found to be still entering the treatment plant. Tyco officials believe PFAS is entering sewer lines through cracks, which it plans to seal before conducting more testing, Howard said.

The Madison sewerage district handles more than 40 million gallons of wastewater a day from 26 municipalities. It hasn’t tested for PFAS in the wastewater it receives or the effluent and sludge it releases.

The nine Madison municipal wells where the chemicals have been detected have been at levels falling below a state groundwater standard that state toxicologists recommended earlier this month for two PFAS compounds. One well, about a mile from the contaminated Truax site, has been shut down as a precaution.

Emails obtained under the state’s open-records law show that, going back at least back to 2017, plant employees were hearing from professional associations about PFAS hazards and raising questions about the chemicals passing through the plant.

In December 2017, the then-director of pretreatment Ralph Erickson sent the plant ecological services director, Martin Griffin, information about what other states were doing. Four months later, Assistant Chief Engineer Jeff Brochtrup emailed employees there to ask if Truax had used PFAS and if wastewater had been tested.

Griffin asked for more information, and eventually had a worker find out the cost of adding PFAS to the contaminants it tests for. But when employees asked about starting testing, the answer from top managers was “no.”

Experts say drinking water is the main way people ingest PFAS. Among the major polluters are military bases, firefighter training sites, metal plating companies, and manufacturers of paper products, leather goods, textiles, industrial surfactants, resins, molds, plastics, wire, semiconductors and equipment for photolithography, according to the nonprofit Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council.

An estimated 5 million to 10 million people in at least 33 states have been exposed to PFAS in drinking water.

Some members of Congress are pushing for federal limits to help enable cleanups, but there has been resistance from the Department of Defense, which is faced with contamination at hundreds of bases where firefighting foam has been used.

Nineteen states have set PFAS limits or guidelines for PFAS in water. Most took action between 2015 and 2017. In March, Maine became the first to require testing of sewage sludge that is spread on land.

Wisconsin has begun much later than many other states in taking initial steps toward setting PFAS standards.

Former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration postponed the start of stricter rules here until early last year. State toxicologists earlier this month recommended groundwater limits for two of the 4,000 or more PFAS compounds, but under laws passed when Walker was in office, it will take two or three years before those standards can be considered for final approval.

A proposed law written with the help of the DNR and the state Department of Health Services, and which borrows from what other states are doing, would speed up the setting of limits and efforts to find out where drinking water is contaminated. It has dozens of plenty of support among Democrats but none from the Republicans who control the state Legislature.

“It’s really unacceptable for us to not take action when there is a health hazard,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona. “That’s one the strongest responsibilities we have, is to protect public health.”

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t directly answer a question about the bill. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Lobbyists for various manufacturing concerns, including the paper industry, have urged lawmakers to go slowly and carefully examine PFAS regulations before acting.

A water-quality task force announced by Vos in January has held public hearings and plans to schedule one on PFAS, said the committee chairman, Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville. Novak said he hopes the panel will roll out proposed legislation on at least some water-pollution troubles this fall or winter.

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