Damakant Jayshi

Officials from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday that the entities responsible for contaminating drinking water and groundwater have an obligation to notify the state agency and work on remediation plans by hiring qualified experts.

But the open question is how, exactly, to identify the polluters responsible.

Trevor Nobile, field operations director at the Remediation & Redevelopment Program at the DNR, told the City Council during an educational presentation on PFAS on Tuesday that the law calls for responsible parties to define the extent of such contamination.

“PFAS can be a difficult one because there can be potentially overlapping sources or potential multiple sources and multiple responsible parties,” Nobile said.

When a party is deemed responsible, a qualified environmental professional is required to work with the DNR on remediation plans, he said.

Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian, a founding member of the grassroots environmental group Citizens for a Clean Wausau, said pollutants have long been seeping into groundwater and into the Wisconsin River, an issue residents and the DNR have grappled with for years. Kilian reminded the DNR representatives that two of the city’s drinking water wells that had high PFAS levels are immediately adjacent to a Superfund site, of which the city of Wausau is a responsible party. The sites are next to a former chemical company with a plume that extends beneath the river.

“When you have elevated PFAS levels next to a Superfund site that has an established monitoring well network to test for VOCs, why wouldn’t the city of Wausau…immediately test them for PFAS?” Kilian said. “So it can be assured that contamination isn’t migrating toward the drinking water wells?”

While Nobile acknowledged Kilian’s point that Wausau is dealing with significant pollutants and contamination plumes in an area with “quite the history,” he said identifying single sources of PFAS contamination can be difficult “on multiple levels.”

That prompted Dist. 5 Alder Gary Gisselman to ask whether the DNR was simply going to say it was “extremely difficult” to identify those sources – or take some action. There should be some effort, he said, to find those sources and not just give up on the idea.

“I am not sure about Wausau but I’m sure throughout Wisconsin there were clearly evident sources that did damage to drinking water in the state,” Gisselman said.

And Dist. 4 Alder Doug Diny asked whether it would be possible to hold a group of polluters responsible, to forensically determine who or what is causing pollution in the Wisconsin River. The answer was not entirely clear, though Nobile said that in his experience, a group of polluters could be held equally responsible through a potential third-party agreement.

One complication faced by Wausau and other municipalities is the lack of an established groundwater standard. Steve Elmore, director of Drinking Water and Groundwater for the DNR, said that standard does not yet exist. Kilian asked whether that fact meant polluters cannot be held accountable for their actions.

Elmore said the process of establishing the standard will take two and a half years.

Tuesday’s discussion, a presentation to the council by the DNR on PFAS remediation and redevelopment programs, happened on the same day that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested a new and stringent safety standard for drinking water.

“EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is informed by the best available science, and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a news release. “This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”

The EPA announced the maximum contamination level for drinking water for two of the most widely known PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, at 4 parts per trillion. This new standard is way below the state’s 70 PPT limit set last year. The federal agency state also set the hazard index for four other PFAS chemicals.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg asked the state officials how the announcement from the EPA would change how the city approached PFAS.

“The short answer is nothing happens right away,” the DNR’s Elmore said.

The EPA’s announcement will kick off a commenting period. The public, the DNR and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services will now have an opportunity to weigh in on the federal proposal. Elmore said by late 2023 or early 2024, there might be a final rule. Once that happens, the DNR official said, it will start the process to put that into the state law. “Three years later we will have a state law with that maximum contamination level in it.”

In the meantime, the state’s 70 PPT level is the standard that the DNR requires testing to be carried out by water utilities, including Wausau, in the state. But if the contaminant level reaches what they call the “hazard index” of 20 PPT, the state requires utilities to issue public notices to consumers.

On March 7, the Wausau Water Works Commission approved continuing a temporary PFAS-removal technology for the new drinking water treatment plant. The safety level threshold is 20 PPT, as set by the Wisconsin DHS. Commissioner John Robinson wanted to postpone setting any timeline for the replacement of anion media until EPA announced its new safety level.