Wisconsin Republicans block PFAS cleanup until polluters are granted immunity

<span>Researchers conduct drinking water and PFAS research at an EPA facility in Cincinnati on 16 February 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Joshua A Bickel/AP</span>
Researchers conduct drinking water and PFAS research at an EPA facility in Cincinnati on 16 February 2023.Photograph: Joshua A Bickel/AP

Wisconsin Republicans are withholding $125m designated for cleanup of widespread PFAS contamination in drinking water and have said they will only release the funds in exchange for immunity for polluters.

The move is part of a broader effort by Republicans in the state to steal power from the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, the funding’s supporters say, alleging such “political games” are putting residents’ health at risk.

“People really feel like they’re being held hostage,” said Lee Donahue, mayor of Campbell, which is part of the La Crosse metropolitan area and has drinking water contaminated with astronomical levels of PFAS. “It’s ridiculous, and some would argue that it’s criminal, that they are withholding money from communities in dire need of clean drinking water.”

Related: What are PFAs? Everything you need to know about the ‘forever chemicals’ surrounding us every day

PFAS are a class of chemicals used across dozens of industries to make products water-, stain- and heat-resistant. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down, and they persist in the environment and accumulate in humans’ and animals’ bodies. The compounds are linked to cancer, decreased immunity, thyroid problems, birth defects, kidney disease, liver problems and a range of other serious illnesses.

The Environmental Protection Agency this year established limits for several of the most common PFAS, including levels at four parts per trillion (ppt) for the most dangerous. PFAS are contaminating water for more than 350,000 Wisconsin public water system users, often at levels far exceeding the limits. Many more private wells have contaminated water. In Madison, the state capital, levels in water sources were found as high as 180,000ppt.

In Campbell, where more than 500 wells have tested positive for PFAS at levels up to thousands of times above federal limits, many suspect high rates of cancer and other serious ailments that have plagued the town’s residents stem from the dangerous chemicals.

In the face of the crisis, bipartisan budget legislation that created the $125m pot of money for cleanup was approved by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed by the governor in mid-2023. The funds are supposed to go to the Wisconsin department of natural resources.

Related: New bill could bail out US farmers ruined by ‘forever chemical’ pollution

Previously, money approved during budgeting processes was released to the state agency. Since Evers ousted the Republican Scott Walker in 2018, the GOP-controlled legislature has claimed the joint finance committee (JFC) it controls can add stipulations to how the money is spent, or refuse to release money approved in the budget.

That gives Republican leadership more control over how Evers’s administration spends and governs, and the GOP is using that legal theory to withhold the PFAS-cleanup funding.

“It is definitely a power grab,” said Erik Kanter, president of Clean Wisconsin, which is lobbying on PFAS issues.

Meanwhile, Republicans separately floated a piece of legislation that provided a framework for how the $125m would be spent on PFAS cleanup, but it included what Kanter called a “poison pill”: it exempted PFAS polluters from the state’s spill laws that are designed to hold industry accountable for the contamination it causes.

Evers vetoed the legislation because of the spill law exemption. The department of natural resources then proposed to GOP legislators that it would spend the $125m as outlined in the Republican legislation, but industry would not be exempt from the spill laws. The legislature has so far rejected that proposal, and it is now on break for the rest of 2024.

“At this point in time it looks like the JFC is not going to release those dollars,” Kanter said. “That money has been sitting there for almost a year and nobody has gotten any help because of political games in the legislature.”

The Evers administration announced in late May that it would sue the committee for withholding the funds and make a constitutional separation of powers claim. It charges the JFC’s withholding is “an unconstitutional legislative veto”. Republican leadership did not immediately return a request for comment.

In the meantime, communities such as La Crosse continue to struggle, Donahue said. The city and county have so far spent nearly $1m trying to determine the feasibility of tapping into a neighboring aquifer and continue to monitor it to ensure the PFAS plume contaminating their drinking water source does not migrate.

“What do we do?” Donahue asked. “We can’t afford to wait another year for help.”