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Decision in WMC Toxic Spills Lawsuit is a Win for Public Health

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Madison, WI— At a hearing today, a Waukesha County Circuit Court agreed to extend a temporary stay on an April decision that limits the state’s authority to address toxic PFAS contamination under Wisconsin’s Spills Law. The ruling preventing the decision from taking effect will allow the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to continue cleaning up PFAS contamination and providing bottled water to families whose drinking water has been contaminated.

Today’s 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, Judge Michael Bohren sided with WMC, though he agreed to place a temporary stay on the decision in response to concerns that it would endanger public health and cause considerable regulatory uncertainty. 

Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) subsequently filed an amicus brief arguing for an extension of the stay while an appeal by the DNR is pending.

MEA is participating in the case on behalf of a group of environmental and public health advocates, including Citizens for a Clean Wausau, Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Environmental Health Network and Doug Oitzinger, a former mayor of Marinette.

“We are confident the DNR’s efforts to keep Wisconsin families safe from PFAS contamination will ultimately be vindicated,” said MEA Staff Attorney Rob Lee. “In the meantime, the Court’s decision to extend the stay will limit the physical, mental, and economic harm suffered by those living in and around PFAS contamination sites in Wisconsin.”

PFAS, sometimes called “forever chemicals,” are a class of synthetic compounds found in a wide variety of manufacturing processes and consumer products such as firefighting foam, nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant carpets, cleaning products and more. PFAS have been linked to serious health problems including cancer, reproductive issues, thyroid disease, immune system issues and
more.

“Extending the stay is critical to protecting public health while an appeals court considers the issue,” said Beth Neary, M.D., Co-President of Wisconsin Environmental Health Network. “PFAS exposure is associated with higher rates of cancer and other serious health problems. Exposure is not something that can be readily undone or mitigated once it has occurred. They accumulate in the human body and remain there for long periods of time—there is no way to remove them.”

“Under the Spills Law, the DNR is currently providing bottled water to more than 1,300 families in communities across the state whose wells have been poisoned by PFAS contamination,” said Doug Oitzinger, a former mayor of the City of Marinette. “Many of those families wouldn’t be able to pay for bottled water out of their own pockets. If the stay had been lifted, they would have faced the terrible prospect of drinking contaminated tap water.”

Allison Werner, Executive Director of River Alliance of Wisconsin, said, “Lifting the stay would have made an already difficult situation much worse. It would have delayed critical work currently being carried out by DNR staff to identify and clean up contamination at close to a hundred different sites around Wisconsin. Meanwhile, highly mobile PFAS contamination would have continued to migrate through our groundwater, polluting even more wells.”

“The outcome of this case will have serious real-world consequences for many communities,” said Tom Kilian of Citizens for a Clean Wausau. “If WMC succeeds in undermining the Spills Law, communities that find PFAS in their drinking water will have no recourse for holding polluters accountable. Municipalities and private businesses will be forced to pay for remediation on their own.”

“If WMC prevails in this lawsuit, it will be exceedingly difficult to repair the damage the Spills Law was designed to prevent. Wisconsin will be forced back into the dark ages of environmental protection, where we could remain for a very long time,” said Dean Hoegger, President and Executive Director of Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin.

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