By Shereen Siewert

State officials are asking 125 municipalities, including Wausau, to sample and analyze water flowing in and out of wastewater treatment facilities for possible contaminants, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The voluntary request is being made in light of recent discoveries of drinking and groundwater contamination across the state, officials said. Wausau was chosen because the city is more likely to receive wastewater from businesses that knowingly or unknowingly use PFAS, a group of human-made chemicals used for decades in numerous products including non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays, and certain types of firefighting foam that have made their way into the environment, DNR officials said.

The results are expected to help the DNR gain a better understanding of how and where PFAS contaminants could be entering the air, land, and waters of the state before ultimately ending up in public and private drinking water.

“No one should ever be afraid to turn on their tap. Clean drinking water is a public health priority,” said DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole.

A letter was sent last week to the municipal wastewater treatment facilities requesting that they sample their discharges for PFAS.

Based on initiatives by other states such as Minnesota and Michigan, DNR officials concluded that PFAS could enter the municipal wastewater system. These legacy contaminants can then be unintentionally transferred to farm fields through land spreading, to groundwater and our rivers and lakes through surface water discharges, and finally into our drinking water.

Data from the sampling results will be used to assist facilities to identify and implement a plan to reduce the amount of PFOA and PFOS entering their facility. The data will also be used to inform DNR on any rule making and associated economic impact analyses as part of the effort to adopt surface water standards and groundwater standards for these two PFAS compounds.

In addition to this wastewater sampling initiate, the DNR is also developing administrative rules in the fall to establish groundwater quality standards for two PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS. The public will be invited to provide input at several steps in the process, officials said.

Since EPA does not have a federal drinking water standard for these contaminants, like other states, Wisconsin is working to address the issue. The rule-making process started with the state department of health services recommending a cumulative groundwater enforcement standard of 20 nanograms per liter (ng/L) or parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS. The recommended standards will be enforceable once the rules are finalized.

The DHS recommendation for groundwater enforcement standards for PFOA and PFOS are comparable to current guidelines or standards in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, and Minnesota. Michigan is also developing standards that once finalized will be close to 20 ppt.