September 29, 2022
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Decision in WMC toxic spills lawsuit is a win for public health

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Thanks to a recent Waukesha County Circuit Court ruling, thousands of Wisconsin residents whose private wells have been contaminated by toxic PFAS chemicals are sleeping a little better knowing they won’t lose access to the bottled water they rely on.

The court’s ruling puts a hold on an April decision limiting the state’s authority to address PFAS contamination under Wisconsin’s Spills Law. The latest ruling prevents that decision from taking effect, which means the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) can continue to investigate and clean up PFAS — the toxic chemicals found in Teflon and other products — when contamination is discovered in soil and water. It also means the DNR can continue to provide assistance, including bottled water, to families whose private wells have been poisoned. 

The ruling is the latest development in a lawsuit filed by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business lobby. WMC sued the DNR in an effort to limit the agency’s ability to investigate PFAS contamination and require responsible parties to clean up contaminated sites. In April, the circuit court sided with WMC, though it agreed to place a temporary stay on the decision in response to concerns that it could endanger public health.

My organization, Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA), subsequently filed a “friend of the court” brief arguing for an extension of the stay while an appeal to a higher court by the DNR is pending. MEA is participating in the case on behalf of a group of environmental and public health advocates. We are confident the DNR’s efforts to keep Wisconsin families safe from PFAS contamination will ultimately be vindicated through the appeals process. In the meantime, a stay on the decision will limit the physical, mental, and economic harm suffered by those living in and around PFAS contamination sites in Wisconsin.

PFAS exposure has been linked to increased risk of developing serious health problems like cancer, reproductive issues, thyroid disease, immune system issues and more. Putting the April decision on hold while the appellate courts consider the issue is a commonsense way to minimize those risks, says Dr. Beth Neary co-president of Wisconsin Environmental Health Network, one of our clients in the case. As a pediatrician who cares deeply about the health of children, Dr. Neary has spent her career educating families and other health professionals about the importance of minimizing children’s exposure to environmental toxins. While exposure to any hazardous substance can endanger a child’s health, exposure to “forever chemicals” represents a particularly sinister threat. That’s because it can’t be undone once it occurs. 

Another client, former Marinette Mayor Doug Oitzinger, continues to play an important role in organizing and educating his community following the discovery of widespread PFAS contamination originating at Tyco/Johnson Controls’ fire training facility. For residents of Marinette, allowing the circuit court decision to go into effect would have delayed the critical work currently being carried out by DNR staff to identify and clean up contamination. Meanwhile, highly mobile PFAS chemicals would have continued to migrate through groundwater, threatening to pollute even more wells and endangering the health of even more families. 

Marinette is one of many Wisconsin communities with a stake in the outcome of this case. If WMC prevails in undermining the Spills Law, families in Peshtigo, Rhinelander, Campbell and nearly a hundred other communities will face the prospect of having to deal with PFAS contamination on their own. Wisconsin will be forced back into the dark ages of environmental protection, where we could remain for a very long time. We owe it to our children and our grandchildren to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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