Wisconsin Governor Orders State Agencies to Address PFAS Contamination

By Andrew Davis, Brett Shanks and Whitney Cole

On August 22, 2019, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued an executive order to address concerns related to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination throughout the state. PFAS are used in everyday products such as non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and firefighting foam. In signing the order, Governor Evers stated that everyone "should have access to clean drinking water, and Wisconsinites should be able to trust the water coming out of their tap."  

The order directs state agencies to take action regarding PFAS contamination, including coordinating with other agencies to develop an action plan for public information, monitoring for needed health advisories, developing regulatory standards, and using natural resource damages claims to combat the harmful effects of contamination. Most prominently, Governor Evers directed agencies to modify the Voluntary Party Liability Exemption law, a law that allows Wisconsin agencies to award liability exemptions to parties after completing cleanup of hazardous substances like PFAS. 

Bart Sponseller, Deputy Administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, stated in response to the governor’s order that the DNR is considering including only certain contaminants in the liability exemption, as opposed to a broader list. "If we go through site cleanup and then the state takes on that liability afterwards, we might be taking on the liability for the state taxpayer for contamination that we're not aware of," said Sponseller. 

Earlier this year, Governor Evers and state Democrats unveiled the Chemical Level Enforcement & Remediation (CLEAR) Act. If passed, the law would provide the DNR with tools to investigate the extent of PFAS contamination across the state. A PFAS Technical Advisory Group was also created within the Wisconsin DNR, with the goal of discussing issues related to PFAS contamination in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin DNR has also been holding public meetings regarding PFAS contamination, with the next session scheduled for September 18, 2019. 

Wisconsin’s recent executive order is part of a nationwide trend by individual states to more aggressively address PFAS contamination. These efforts are likely to have a significant impact on a wide range of industries, including those involving cleaners, textiles, leather, paper, paints, firefighting foams and wire insulation.

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