By Shereen Siewert

After hearing testimony from municipal leaders throughout the state, the Natural Resources Board on Wednesday failed to approve recommended standards to limit the amount of PFAS pollution, instead choosing a years-old limit that is widely expected to be overturned within months. 

Even the Environmental Protection Agency has signaled it will abandon the standard approved by the Natural Resources Board. Surrounding states including Minnesota and Michigan have long ago passed state limits on PFAS in drinking water that align with the expected federal standard of 20 ppt, which will likely be released this fall. The NRB set a 70 ppt standard, a number met with mixed reaction.

The NRB meeting was held one day after a Wausau Committee of the Whole discussion on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances found in all of the city’s drinking water wells that exceed the state Department of Health Services recommendation of 20 parts per trillion (ppt). Rothschild officials announced Wednesday they shut down one of the village wells after voluntary testing showed PFAS that prompted safety concerns.

The Natural Resources Board amended the drinking water standard to two and a half times more lenient than DHS recommendations, based on the most recent science.

One member of the board, Dr. Fred Prehn, accused Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg of creating “hysteria” and “psychosis” among city residents.

Prehn’s continued service on the Board after his term ended has been sharply criticized and is the subject of ongoing litigation. River Alliance of Wisconsin Senior Legal Analyst Bill Davis blamed the Wisconsin State Senate for creating what he called “politically motivated inaction” that “has kept an anti-environment bias on the board.”

“Today, any past claims that Wisconsin was a leader when it comes to protecting human health and the environment are just that: past claims,” Davis said. “This is a sad day for all people in our state and for the health of our environment. The failure of the Board to approve better drinking and groundwater standards as recommended will lead to needless injury from exposure to these substances.”

Wisconsin DHS toxicologist Sarah Yang unequivocally stated this month that there are “immediate risks” associated with the city’s drinking water. Yang’s comments are a direct contrast to those of Public Works Director Eric Lindman, who issued a lengthy news release declaring the city’s water safe and saying he sends his children to school with bottles filled from Wausau’s taps.

Most members of Wausau’s City Council urged the city and the Wausau Water Commission to take swift action to protect citizens on both a long- and short-term basis. But so far, some members of the Water Commission are appearing to downplay the situation including Joe Gehin, who has been employed by a company involved in designing the city’s new roughly $120 million water treatment facility. The facility, now under construction, does not currently have the capability to remove PFAS.

“We don’t want to rush into anything that would cause an unexpected outcome,” Gehin said last week.

Dist. 9 Alder Dawn Herbst, who represents the Council on the Water Commission, also appeared to have little patience or interest in solutions posed by her fellow members during Tuesday’s meeting.

“Wow,” she said publicly, after hearing another alder suggest solutions to protect the public. “I’m still awake.”

But most members of the Wausau City Council appear poised to take action to protect the public, with solutions ranging from a mobile water filtration system for the most widely impacted wells, to providing bottled water for low-income residents and in-home filters for all homes.

“We need to take action now,” said Dist. 10 Alderman Lou Larson.

City leaders this week approved funds for a pilot study proposed by Lindman to determine the best long-term solution for the city’s entire water supply, but the timeline is unclear.

Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian spoke to the Natural Resources Board on Wednesday to urge a lower threshold for drinking water in Wisconsin. Kilian, who did not speak to the group as a representative of the city but as a resident, called the NRB’s standard set on Wednesday a “politically manipulated number.”

“It appeared that lobbyists and big-money interests had a tremendous influence on the process and outcome,” Kilian said.”I am committed to providing Wausau residents with clean and safe water based on DHS health guidance, and have no intention of veering from the policy path that I laid out last night to achieve that – in fact, I will redouble it.”

The Water Commission will meet March 1 to discuss next steps for the city.