Spoiler alert: Yes, most likely.
What's a PFAS? Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of several thousand human-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s and have become the center of a debate before the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). PFAS create a grease-, water-, or stain-resistant barrier when applied to a product. They are most commonly found in paints and fire-fighting foams, carpets and upholstery, food packaging, cookware, and cleaning products. While PFAS have been phased out of production in the United States over the past two decades, they still enter the country.
PFAS have been referred to as "forever chemicals" due to strong chemical bonds which make them incredibly stable. PFAS take decades or longer to degrade in the environment and accumulate in the human body over time. Almost all people in the United States have some amount of PFAS in their blood. Some research suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may increase risk of cancer, increase cholesterol, decrease response to vaccines, increase risk of thyroid disease, decrease fertility in women, increase risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and lower infant birth weights.
PFAS have been detected in groundwater across Wisconsin. Sites in the Peshtigo and Marinette areas have undergone or will undergo investigation by the DNR. Madison's well number 15 was shut down as a precaution after readings showed a PFAS concentration of 20-21 parts per trillion. In July, Rhinelander shut down a well with a reading that they described as higher than what health agencies suggest. This contamination is linked to military bases, airports, and facilities that previously produced or heavily relied on products containing PFAS through imported goods.
The DNR conducted three rounds of sampling this summer at sites that were near known or likely sources of PFAS chemicals, including portions of the Menominee, Mississippi, and Wisconsin rivers. The first round of sampling for chemicals known as PFAS in surface waters has revealed elevated levels in Wisconsin rivers and creeks.
On July 22, 2019, the DNR initiated a new voluntary PFAS testing program for WPDES permittees. Specifically, the DNR requested 1,256 "municipal wastewater treatment facilities with industrial pretreatment programs or contributing industries expected to be sources of PFAS to sample their influent and effluent for PFAS compounds."
However, in addition to contacting 125 WPDES permittees, the DNR contacted private sector entities for purposes of requesting voluntary sampling of PFAS compounds.
On August 22, 2019, Governor Tony Evers issued Executive Order #40, which orders the DNR, DHS, and DATCP to:
- establish a public information website to properly inform the public on PFAS and the risk these chemicals pose to public health and Wisconsin's natural resources,
- collaborate with municipalities and wastewater treatment plants on screening programs to identify potential sources of PFAS into the environment,
- expand monitoring and consideration of PFAS in the development of fish and other wildlife consumption advisories to protect human health,
- develop regulatory standards to protect public health and the environment from PFAS contamination,
- modify the Voluntary Party Liability Exemption Law, which provides future liability exemptions after successful completion of hazardous substance cleanup, to protect Wisconsin taxpayers from uncertain and costly liability associated with PFAS, and
- access opportunities for using natural resources damages claims under state or federal law to address compensation for PFAS impacts to natural resources.
The Order also creates the PFAS Coordinating Council, pursuant to Wisconsin Statute section 14.019. Among other tasks, the Council will develop a multi-agency PFAS action plan, identify and prioritize known PFAS sources, develop best practices and protocols for identifying PFAS sources to ensure that the materials are managed in a way that protects natural resources and human health, and explore avenues of funding for the state, local governments, and private parties to aid their efforts to address PFAS.
In addition to the PFAS Coordinating Council, DNR has created a PFAS Technical Advisory Group. Among other things, the purpose of the Group is to share regulatory updates associated with Wisconsin's development of programs to manage PFAS. Any interested party may attend the meetings, which are held at the DNR headquarters in Madison, and are open to the public.
The big question is what happens when the bank, a client's property, or a client's product is over the PFAS limit?
Special thanks to Jacob Curtis at Von Briesen & Roper, S.C. who contributed to this article.