Wisconsin Republicans Put PFAS Polluters First, Constituents Second

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Republicans in Wisconsin are showing the world just how far they are willing to go to protect corporate polluters. They are withholding $125 million 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,” she told The Guardian recently. “The reason people live here is the connection with nature.  Everybody is a fisherman. Everybody is recreational, whether it’s a canoe, a kayak, a photographer,” she said.

PFAS Pollution Is Everywhere

The issue is massive PFAS contamination associated with the use of various foams designed to extinguish fires at the nearby Lacrosse regional airport. The foam was used for years primarily as part of training exercises for local fire fighters. The airport is owned by the city of Lacrosse, which has been sued by the residents of the town of Campbell.

PFAS are a class of chemicals used in 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 the water in many public water systems in Wisconsin, 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 180,000 ppt.

Donahue told Minnesota Public Radio that residents of Campbell are angry and frustrated. Some drank their well water for decades, not knowing about the contamination. “It weighs so heavily on your mind. You now have something in your body you can’t get out, and you don’t know what your health response is going to be. Are you going to have liver cancer? Are you going to have brain cancer? Are your 21-year-old children going to have testicular cancer? You don’t know.”

PFAS Manufacturers Face Lawsuits

The city of La Crosse has sued nearly two dozen chemical manufacturers that produced the firefighting foam used at the airport.”We feel the manufacturers are responsible as those who knew very well the risks of the chemicals in the foams and all the rest of the products that we use, and just did not disclose that information,” Mayor Mitch Reynolds said. Last month, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul traveled to Campbell to announce a lawsuit against 18 companies, including 3M and DuPont, seeking reimbursement to the state for its costs associated with investigating and cleaning up PFAS contamination.

In a statement, 3M said it acted responsibly in connection with its manufacture and sale of PFAS, “and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.” It is now part of an industry group that has sued the EPA, alleging it exceeded its authority when it promulgated the new rules limiting the use of PFAS chemicals, a position that is likely to find favor with the right wing extremists on the US Supreme Court.

Playing Politics With Pollution

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. To address the crisis, bipartisan budget legislation created a $125 million pool of money for cleanup. It was approved by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed by the governor a year ago. The funds are supposed to go to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

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 dominates 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 the Evers 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 proposed legislation that would provide a framework for how the $125 million 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 they cause. 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 $125 million 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 in recess for the remainder 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.” While residents of the state wait for the Republicans in the legislature to discover where they hid their humanity and their scruples, those PFAS chemicals continue to invade the bodies of people who live in Campbell and other Wisconsin communities.

In the meantime, communities such as La Crosse continue to struggle, Donahue said. The city and county have so far spent nearly $1 million 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.”

The Takeaway

In Wisconsin, Republicans are proud to behave like an organized crime family. Such is the state of politics in America today, where elected representatives feel a higher duty to ideology than to the people who elected them. These political prostitutes are happy to see their constituents get sick and die in order to score political points. Remember that if you are tempted to vote for felons and thugs this November.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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