Read the full article by Isiah Holmes (Wisconsin Examiner)

“Wisconsin’s efforts to track and contain PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and their chemical cousins continue. Although the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has adjusted its operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PFAS testing and treatment have not halted.

PFAS are part of a group of man-made compounds, ranging in the thousands, which were used over decades in numerous products, from non-stick pans to fast food wrappers and anti-stick clothing. They have an uncanny ability to repel water and oil, and have also been used in larger scale industrial projects. PFAS, along with PFOS and other related chemicals, have been linked to a variety of health issues both in animals and humans.

States are working to set recommended limits for how much PFAS is considered safe in water supplies. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has stated that PFAS levels exceeding 20 ppt (parts per trillion) are not safe for human consumption. Diseased and dying livestock, wildlife, family pets, even birth defects and cancers in humans have been blamed on high levels of PFAS contamination in water.

These compounds, however, are remarkably dynamic in the way that they move around the environment. PFAS, PFOS, and related chemicals have been detected in landfills, private wells, bio-masses, waterways, the air, and in the very tissues of living creatures. Christine Haag, DNR remediation and redevelopment program director, says, ‘this is still very emerging as a science.’ Eerily, she notes, ‘once it enters the environment it moves through. It doesn’t really seem to have an end-point where it’s captured and contained.’ Thus, PFAS and PFOS compounds have been dubbed, ‘forever chemicals,’ which do not break down.

Addressing Wisconsin’s own PFAS contamination became a top priority for the state government recently. In February, the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality introduced a package of 10 water-related bills, including measures to address PFAS contamination. That same month, the Wisconsin PFAS Action Council (WisPAC) began developing an action plan to prioritize PFAS responses statewide. Those responses have been retooled  to work around the coronavirus pandemic.

Haag says she was ‘pretty astonished’ at how quickly staff transitioned. The changes included moving the agency’s over 3,500 staff off-site, including part-time employees some of whom, Haag explained, did not have computers or other devices at home.

‘Just speaking for my own program,’ Haag tells Wisconsin Examiner, ‘there probably was a two-week period of time in late March where there was an awful lot of effort spent on getting people computers, phones, and learning how to do this remotely.’ Haag and her colleagues were faced with new and pressing challenges, such as continuing to coordinate emergency spill responses, and other operations. ‘We had to put a system in place for how we were going to ensure that the agency, not just our functions but all emergency functions that the agency has, how we were going to continue to ensure public safety.’

Once staff re-organized their communication and coordination methods, around week three, ‘we started going about our regular business again.’ Haag recalls that the first meeting she had which didn’t involve COVID-19 ended up being about PFAS. ‘It was oddly relieving,’ says Haag, ‘I was happy to have that conversation.’ On April 15, the DNR also hosted an online meeting in Marinette, to provide updates on PFAS operations across the state. ‘We have not suspended any state laws,’ Haag says. ‘All state laws are in effect. So, no one has pressed the pause button and said, ‘everyone has a pass’…”