By The Associated Press

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. January 2, 2021.

Editorial: PFAS caution is warranted

It’s not surprising that there are questions about the closure of several wells last year in Eau Claire due to contamination with PFAS chemicals. Some of those will most likely be answered in the coming months as an official determination on their source is made.

For those who question the closures themselves, though, we’d suggest looking at French Island.

The city isn’t all that far away, just down in La Crosse County. It has about 4,200 people. And it has a major PFAS problem.

Word of the contamination was released a year ago. Jim Walker, one of the community’s residents, called the news “one of the scariest things that’s happened to me in my life.” A year later, Walker and others in town still get bottled water delivered every few weeks in order to do basic tasks.

As with Eau Claire’s contamination, there’s a potential link to an airport. French Island isn’t all that far away from La Crosse Regional Airport. And, more importantly, it’s downstream. That means firefighting foam contaminated with PFAS chemicals flowed toward the town’s water supply.

As with so many things, uncertainty is one of the worst parts described by Walker. The Environmental Protection Agency’s web page on PFAS admits there are a lot of unknowns. We don’t know how many people are currently being exposed to the chemicals, or precisely how harmful they are. While few thing the contamination will prove to be entirely benign, it’s not yet clear what the risks are.

The EPA described the search for answers as involving “long, in-depth evaluations of a few specific PFAS, as well as shorter scientific studies that provide information about hundreds of PFAS.” But the exact timeline remains uncertain.

The big unknown is what led to the Walkers getting their water from bottles and Eau Claire cutting off several wells from the water supply: we just don’t know how to remove this stuff from water yet.

It’s unlikely that last point will be a permanent issue. The science behind removing a long list of contaminants from drinking water is pretty well established. That is, after all, the precise job of local water plants across the country. It seems more likely than not a solution will be found. Will it be cost-effective? That’s another question.

What we’re seeing with the investigation into the effects of PFAS chemicals and their removal is science playing out in real time. It’s often tempting to view the way we’re taught it in so many classes: a problem is identified, addressed and, ultimately a solution is found. In that mode of thinking, the end result seems inevitable.

What that misses is the way the debates often unfold in the scientific community. It skips over myriad theories being formulated, tested and discarded. It ignores the uncertainty and growth that accompany learning.

A contaminant we’re all aware of illustrates the point. Lead poisoning is a known risk today and the reason leaded gasoline was finally banned worldwide. That ban, incidentally, came into effect just last July, though western nations had generally enacted bans decades ago. It was identified as a health risk as early as the mid-1920s, but it took another half-century for action by the EPA to finally begin eliminating leaded gas. During that time there were fierce arguments over how dangerous it was, and whether it was a significant pollutant in the first place.

That experience should remind us that what seems obvious in hindsight rarely is at the moment. And, in this moment, we’re not sure just how risky PFAS consumption via contaminated water is. There’s reason to believe it poses some risk, but more precise assessment isn’t yet available.

The difference between now and the identification of leaded gas as a source of lead poisoning is that there is now a concerted effort to ensure the public isn’t exposed to probable risks.

This is a step in the right direction. No one wants a repeat of the lead contamination that prevailed at one point. Unknown is not the same as nonexistent for risk.

Eventually, a solution will most likely be found. The wells in Eau Claire will probably be reconnected to the water supply, and French Island will be able to turn on the taps again. Until then, we’ll follow along as science learns.

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Kenosha News. December 30, 2021.

Editorial: Making workforce housing more affordable

As Wisconsin continues to deal with the challenges posed by the worker shortage, the state Assembly has taken aim at one of the problems the Badger State faces in that area: The shortage of workforce housing.

State Republicans are sponsoring a package of bills aimed at making workforce housing easier and cheaper to build across the state, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Dec. 20. The majority of the bills were passed by unanimous consent, which of course means the package has bipartisan support.

Workforce housing is defined as housing affordable to households earning between 60% and 120% of an area’s median income. It targets middle-income employees, those who often work in fields such as law enforcement, manufacturing, education, health care and retail.

“There’s a worker shortage in many of our communities and businesses are trying to attract people to their communities; they’re trying to find more workers,” said Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, who cosponsored many of the bills. “And many times, it comes back to the fact that there’s not enough moderately priced housing. So we’re trying to help increase the stock of homes that would fit into the budget of the average workforce.”

The bill sponsors aim to encourage development of new workforce housing by lowering costs, making it easier to build, and reducing government red tape by:

Creating a $42 million per year workforce housing income tax credit for multi-family housing projects.

Creating a certified workforce housing development site program that would pre-qualify properties for residential development that have a clean title, proper zoning, adequate utilities and infrastructure and no wetlands, and that the developer can attest to limited per-unit development fees and that all required permits can be in place within 60 days of certification.

Requiring larger municipalities to use a portion of their federal pandemic relief funds on one of the following workforce housing projects: new infrastructure, such as streets, sewer, water and sidewalks; establishing a low-interest or no-interest loan program for rehabilitating older workforce housing; establishing a low-interest or no-interest loan program for building new workforce housing; redeveloping idle commercial property sites of at least 40,000 square feet to workforce housing.

Creating a sales tax exemption for materials used to build workforce housing developments or to conduct workforce housing rehabilitation projects.

Creating a low-interest or no-interest loan program for homeowners to pay for structural improvements or the removal of lead paint from homes built before 1980.

Allowing local governments to create housing investment fund programs that would use increased property tax revenue from new housing developments to help fund additional workforce housing.

Outgoing Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, told the Journal Sentinel said the bills do not adequately address the state’s housing challenges and could in some instances make the problem worse. “Governor Evers’ original budget proposed $70 million to fight homelessness, including $50 million for grants for municipalities to offer affordable housing, and I was deeply disappointed when Republicans voted to cut these funds,” Hintz said in the statement.

We understand why Leader Hintz would be disappointed. But the fact remains that the Republicans hold the majority in both houses of the Legislature. We also presume that the Democratic caucus is in favor of making workforce housing more affordable.

Republican Rep. Rob Summerfield of Bloomer, who was the legislative point person for the package, said the bills look at the housing issue from a “holistic approach.”

“We knew from the get-go you’re not gonna be able to pass one bill to take care of this issue,” Summerfield said. “You’re not gonna have a silver bullet saying, we do this one thing and all our problems are alleviated. This is where talking to the industry, talking to community groups, talking to everybody who’s got a stake in this and taking their idea, saying, ‘we can do a little here, a little here, a little there.’ And after a while, you start to get a bigger stack of bills that hopefully will make a difference in this issue.”

The bills passed the Assembly in October, but have yet to be taken up by Senate.

We urge the state Senate to take up the bill package when it reconvenes on Jan. 18.

We know Republicans and Democrats don’t like to give the other party a victory in an election year. A bipartisan effort, by definition, is a victory for both parties.

More importantly, in our eyes, would be greater availability of affordable housing which brings more workers to Wisconsin. That would be a win-win-win.

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Racine Journal Times. December 31, 2021.

Editorial: State gets high marks on election integrity

Good news sometimes comes from unexpected places.

While Wisconsin continues to roil with debates and seemingly endless probes of the 2020 presidential election, state election clerks, poll workers and other election officials received a feather in their caps recently with high marks for election security and integrity.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank and advocacy group, ranked Wisconsin eighth in the nation in its election integrity scorecard, which compares state election laws and regulations based on how they impact the security and integrity of the processes based on the foundation’s best-practices recommendations.

Wisconsin received a 20 out of 20 score on voter ID implementation and an overall score of 74 out of 100 to tie it with South Carolina among the top tier of states in conducting the 2020 election.

The Heritage Foundation report compared states in 12 different categories of election-related issues including accuracy of voter registration lists, absentee ballot management, vote harvesting restrictions, access of election observers, verification of citizenship, identification for voter assistance, vote counting practices, election litigation procedures, restrictions of same-day registration, restrictions of automatic registrations and restriction on private funding of election officials or government agencies.

Yes, Wisconsin got zero points on that last category – after receiving $10 million in grants from the Chicago-based Center for Tech and and Civic Life funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that Republicans say were used to unfairly increase turnout in Democratic strongholds, including Racine. State courts and state election officials found nothing illegal about the donations, but they continue to be a focus of the Vos-Gableman investigation that is now sliding into 2022.

Remarkably, the Heritage Foundation report also gave high marks to another state that has been embroiled in post-election disputes. Georgia was ranked tops in election security and integrity with a score of 83 points.

The Heritage Foundation report was not without its advocacy package. It gave states 11 proposed cookie cutter legislation items (just drop in the name of your state in the blank) that would ban Zuckerberg-like contributions to local elections, increase scrutiny of voter registration lists and require monthly cross-referencing them with DMV lists, Dept. of Corrections lists, vital records, public assistance rolls and county tax records to make sure no one is living in a commercial building.

The Heritage Foundation’s proposed legislative package would also clamp down on absentee ballots and maintains “In-person voting is the preferred method of voting within (state).” It would only allow absentee ballots if someone is going to be out of state on election day or early voting days or has a disability.

That might be a hard sell in Wisconsin where nearly 2 million of its 3.3 million voters – 60% — decided to vote absentee during the Covid-challenged 2020 election year.

Our hope is that whatever election procedures or changes are made that they be done well in advance of the next election day so that voters are not whipsawed by changing rules, last-minute court decisions or conflicting advice as happened that year.

Meanwhile, the state’s election clerks, poll workers and others who helped can celebrate their good security and integrity report card. Good job. Now brace yourselves for the next round of elections.