It’s Time to Reclaim Wisconsin’s Legacy of Water Protection
PFAS, nitrates and lead stand in the way of our right to clean water.
August is National Water Quality Month, a month dedicated to bringing awareness to the fact that access to clean water is a human right we all share.
In Wisconsin — home of 15,000 lakes, two of the largest freshwater bodies in the world, and an amount of groundwater roughly equal to the volume of Lake Michigan — what could possibly stand in the way of guaranteeing that human right?
Uncovering the answer to those questions requires a basic understanding of the three main drinking water contaminants that threaten the health of Wisconsin residents: lead, nitrates and synthetic chemicals known as PFAS.
Lead from aging water service lines continues to be a significant cause of lead poisoning in Wisconsin. Thousands of Wisconsin children test positive for dangerous levels of lead exposure each year. Lead is a neurotoxin. It is unsafe at any level and can have profound developmental impacts on children who are exposed.
Nitrates are contaminants that are associated with birth defects and an increased risk of cancer. The vast majority of nitrate contamination in Wisconsin comes from excessive manure and fertilizer application on agricultural lands. Ten percent of private wells across the state contain unsafe levels of nitrates. In areas where agriculture is the predominant land use, the percentage of contaminated wells can be much higher.
PFAS are synthetic chemicals that have been used for decades in a wide variety of manufacturing processes and consumer products such as firefighting foam, nonstick cookware and more. Exposure to PFAS at even extremely low levels has been linked to serious health issues, including an increased risk of cancer. Sites of PFAS contamination are being discovered throughout the state, particularly near industrial facilities that used PFAS compounds, like Tyco’s firefighting foam facility in Marinette, and around airports where these foams were released in the environment, such as on French Island near the La Crosse airport.
Yet, simply identifying the three main water contaminants in our state does not explain why they continue to be such a problem. Wisconsin has faced water contamination problems before and has made significant progress in addressing them in the past. Indeed, in previous decades, Wisconsin was seen as a leader in safe drinking water.
Wisconsinites demanded that officials protect clean water, and government responded, resulting in some of the most forward-looking environmental laws in the nation. Wisconsin was the first to ban the pesticide DDT after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” drew attention to its toxic effects. A few years later, Wisconsin regulations were seen as a model when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. In the early 1980s, Wisconsin was one of the first states to pass a comprehensive groundwater protection law.
Why has Wisconsin fallen behind?
The barrier to ensuring that all Wisconsin residents have access to safe drinking water is not that Wisconsin does not have the laws and resources needed to address lead, nitrates and PFAS. Rather, the problem we currently face is that powerful special interests and their allies in Wisconsin’s Legislature are preventing the state from using those laws to respond to communities that are burdened by contaminated water.
Here are three examples of how this is playing out right now.
In the past two legislative sessions, Republicans in the legislature have refused to follow Gov. Tony Evers’ budget recommendation to invest in additional funding to speed up the replacement of lead laterals throughout the state. And the failure to address lead in water was not for a lack of resources. The second time legislators deleted this funding from the budget, the state had an unpreceded surplus in revenue. Legislative leaders, elected from gerrymandered rural and suburban districts, have said they are opposed to the measure because too much of the funding would go to Milwaukee. Never mind that lead lateral service lines and lead-poisoned children are, unfortunately, found in every area of Wisconsin.
The state Legislature’s rejection of funding for lead lateral replacement prompted the Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network to say during the last budget process, “we reject politicians’ cynical efforts to pit urban communities against rural communities. When politicians think that these divide-and-conquer tactics count as representing their constituents, we all lose.”
Thankfully, current infrastructure spending proposals in Congress include additional funding for lead service line replacement. But that federal funding has not yet passed, and, if it does, Wisconsinites will have to be vigilant to ensure that it is equitably distributed.
While Republicans in the Legislature have shown a disregard for the health of urban dwellers whose municipal drinking water is delivered by lead service lines, they are equally unmoved by the plight of tens of thousands of rural Wisconsin families whose private well water has been contaminated by nitrates.
To address the problem, the Evers administration and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have proposed changes to agricultural runoff regulations. The changes would reduce the amount of nitrates that make their way into groundwater. The plan would be phased in over time and provide cost-sharing to assist small- and medium-sized farms implement the changes.
This means a few legislators who control an obscure legislative committee could leave tens of thousands of rural Wisconsinites without any plan to address nitrate contamination. The next months will be critical. All of us concerned about clean water in our state must demand that the Legislature not prevent the DNR from using existing water protection laws to achieve clean drinking water in rural Wisconsin.
Perhaps the most brazen example of special interest attempts to rob the state of its ability to address water pollution is Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce’s (WMC’s) pending lawsuit against the DNR. WMC, the state’s largest business lobbying group, is asking a court to strip the DNR of its power to order investigation and remediation of PFAS contamination under Wisconsin’s 40-year-old Spills Law. WMC’s lawsuit takes a sledgehammer to this bedrock environmental health protection, and it seems WMC does not care how many people will be harmed in the process. The Spills Law is the only existing law that applies to PFAS. If WMC is successful, people living in Marinette, La Crosse and other communities where PFAS contamination prevents people from drinking their water, will have nowhere to turn.
My organization, Midwest Environmental Advocates, is in court on behalf of communities whose access to clean water is on the line. We are determined to ensure that DNR’s ability to protect and restore our water resources is not diminished. One of our clients, Doug Oitzinger, a former mayor of Marinette, says the journey that led him to take on the most powerful special interest group in the state started when he realized the severity of PFAS contamination in his community. He came out of retirement and ran for local office again to be an advocate for his friends and neighbors. Doug says that if WMC prevails, all the assistance the DNR has so far provided to his community will go away. That assistance includes bottled water, well testing, cleanup and remediation.
Just last month, five of our clients from Kewaunee County achieved a major win for clean water at the Wisconsin Supreme Court. For years, they had been asking the DNR to impose more stringent conditions on a permit for a nearby industrial livestock operation that had contaminated the drinking water of neighboring families. The Supreme Court ruled that, under the state’s water protection laws, the DNR could indeed use commonsense measures to protect water resources.
This landmark Wisconsin Supreme Court victory was achieved because five ordinary people stood against special interest obstruction and tenaciously stood up for clean water. Their success, coupled with the continued advocacy of people like Doug in Marinette, gives me hope for the future. It certainly won’t be easy, but I am optimistic that we will succeed in getting lead out of our drinking water, preventing special interests from stalling progress on nitrate contamination and preserving the power of the state to address PFAS pollution.
Together, we will make Wisconsin a leader in clean water once again.
It’s time to reclaim Wisconsin’s legacy of water protection was originally published by the Wisconsin Examiner.
Tony Wilkin Gibart is the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law firm that works to defend public rights, protect natural resources, and ensure transparency and accountability in government. Learn more about MEA at www.midwestadvocates.org.
- Local Orgs Join State to Remove Lead from Milwaukee Homes - Matt Martinez - Sep 23rd, 2021
- City Hall: 12 Takeaways From City’s 2022 Budget - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 22nd, 2021
- Op Ed: It’s Time to Reclaim Wisconsin’s Legacy of Water Protection - Tony Wilkin Gibart - Aug 13th, 2021
- Health Commissioner Says Lead Crisis is Top Priority - Matt Martinez - Jul 22nd, 2021
- Site Visits Highlight Lead Safety Efforts - Wisconsin Department of Health Services - Jul 19th, 2021
- City Hall: $98 Million Plan Targets Lead Poisoning - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 19th, 2021
- City Hall: Update Expected Soon on Criminal Investigation Into Health Department - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 16th, 2021
- City Hall: Anger and Frustration With Milwaukee’s Lead Program - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 15th, 2021
- Public Safety and Health Committee to discuss city’s lead abatement program on Thursday - Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic - Jul 12th, 2021
- City Hall: Milwaukee’s Lead Program Fails Again - Jeramey Jannene - Jun 17th, 2021
Read more about Lead Crisis here
- Environmental Groups Fight Lawsuit Against Chemical Spills Law - Henry Redman - Sep 20th, 2021
- AG Kaul Leads Coalition in Support of EPA’s proposal to include PFAS as a class in the Contaminant Candidate List 5 - Wisconsin Department of Justice - Sep 17th, 2021
- DNR To Host ‘Threats On Tap: Marginalized Communities’ Webinar Sept. 15 - Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Sep 10th, 2021
- Deer Liver PFAS Surveillance Results Now Available - Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Sep 7th, 2021
- Groundwater Coordinating Council Releases Annual Report - Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Aug 31st, 2021
- AG Kaul, Gov Evers Announce Outside Counsel for Potential PFAS Claims - Wisconsin Department of Justice - Aug 25th, 2021
- Op Ed: It’s Time to Reclaim Wisconsin’s Legacy of Water Protection - Tony Wilkin Gibart - Aug 13th, 2021
- How is PFAS Getting Into Rhinelander’s Water? - Elizabeth Dohms-Harter - Aug 6th, 2021
- French Island Residents Face PFAS Pollution - Hope Kirwan - Aug 2nd, 2021
- DNR Takes On Water Quality Issues Despite Opposition From GOP, Industry - Danielle Kaeding - Jul 29th, 2021
Read more about PFAS Problem here