Wimberger touts progress on PFAS bill

Contamination growing problem in Marinette, Peshtigo area
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

State Sen. Eric Wimberger told the Oconto County Board on Nov. 16 that helping landowners and municipalities deal with PFAS has been one of the three major goals of his first term in office.

PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a large group of human-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. Firefighting foam produced by Johnson Controls Inc. and Tyco Fire Products in Marinette has been blamed for widespread PFAS contamination of soil, private wells, surface water and groundwater in Peshtigo, Marinette and surrounding communities.

Wimberger shepherded a measure through the 2023-25 state budget allocating $125 million for PFAS remediation, and the state Senate on Nov. 14 passed a bill that creates a grant framework for affected property owners and communities, to be administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“In a general sense, what it does is it creates grant programs without a particular dollar amount attached to it,” Wimberger told the county board. “The DNR will then study the issue, find out where particular needs are and their relation to this grant program, and find out what particular amount would be appropriately spent on what particular part, and then come back to the Finance Committee for final approval as to whether we should spend $10 million here, $15 million there, $20 million there.”

The bill, Senate Bill 314, now goes to the Assembly, which is expected to take it up in January before sending it to Gov. Tony Evers for his signature.

The governor has concerns about an aspect of the bill that somewhat limits the DNR’s enforcement ability, Wimberger said.

“If you are a person with PFAS in your land and it migrates from your land to another, even one molecule, you’re going to be described by the DNR as an emitter, subject to remediation orders,” he said.

Without the proposed law, property owners with no knowledge about the PFAS that migrated through their land could find themselves subject to potential liability for hundreds of thousands of dollars in remediation costs, devastating their property values, he said.

“I’m tremendously concerned as to the function of the law in declaring regular old people —who have nothing to do with anything — emitters,” Wimberger said. “In fact, it might be a mile down the road … and the only remedy for that is for neighbors to starting suing neighbors or for the people who have the farmland to start suing government.”

Rather than miring everybody through years and years of litigation, “the aim of the bill is to declare these innocent landowners protected from remediation orders — the innocent landowners, we’re not talking about the industry,” he said.

The one caveat is that property owners must be willing to let the DNR take measures to remediate the problem, such as installing a test well.

“That re-establishes the value of the property and is not going to cause a tremendous freakout,” Wimberger said.

Some critics are making an “overly broad characterization” of the bill as restricting the DNR’s regulatory authority, the senator said.

“The bill protects the farmers, it does not protect the manufacturers or the producers,” he said, and Johnson Controls is trying to distance itself between its release of the chemicals and the contaminated soil later being transferred to local farmers. “No one in the industry told municipalities to save a few bucks by not sending these hazardous substances to the landfill, and instead they declared it safe and gave it to the farmer.”

Wimberger told supervisors his other main goals for his first term have also advanced — building a long-anticipated southern Brown County bridge across the Fox River and improvements to the Port of Green Bay. He will be up for a second four-year term in November 2024.