Gov. Evers Going After Corporate PFAS Contaminators

Gov. Tony Evers announced last week that he’s preparing to take legal action against companies responsible for PFAS contamination in Wisconsin. 

PFAS – or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – are a group of human-made chemicals that have been used for decades in numerous products, including nonstick cookware, fast-food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and certain types of firefighting foam. These contaminants have made their way into the environment through spills of PFAS-containing materials, discharges of PFAS-containing wastewater to treatment plants and certain types of firefighting foam.

The Evers administration has begun the selection process for an outside law firm to help the state evaluate and pursue litigation against the companies responsible. The decision comes following recommendations from the Wisconsin PFAS Action Council’s PFAS Action Plan, which was released in December after a nearly year-long public process by the PFAS Coordinating Council.

“PFAS can have devastating effects not only on our state’s ecosystem and vital natural resources, but on the health of our families and communities across the state,” Gov. Evers said in a statement. “It is unacceptable, and those companies responsible for the contamination of our land and water should be held accountable so we can move forward in cleaning up this pollution for the health and safety of our communities.”

The Wisconsin PFAS Action Council, created by Executive Order #40, aims to help address the issue of PFAS in our state. The council’s PFAS Action Plan includes 25 action items to address PFAS contamination centered around environmental justice, health equity and pollution prevention. One of the plan’s recommended action items is pursuing appropriate legal action against corporate actors responsible for the harmful discharges.

Other states such as Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire and Vermont have pursued similar litigation and leveraged the funds derived from the litigation to support the most affected communities. Currently, Wisconsin monitors nearly 50 sites across the state for PFAS contamination.

PFAS do not break down in the environment and have been discovered at concentrations of concern in groundwater, surface water and drinking water. They are also known to bioaccumulate in fish and wildlife tissues and accumulate in the human body, posing several risks to human health.

Evers’ announcement drew fire from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s chamber of commerce and largest business trade association, representing more than 3,700 employers of all sizes in every sector of the economy.

The WMC said in a statement that there are currently thousands of different PFAS substances in existence, many of which have been approved by the FDA for food packaging. WMC President and CEO Kurt Bauer said the move disparages Wisconsin employers “regardless of whether there is an actual health risk associated with certain PFAS compounds.

“The business community has worked cooperatively with policymakers and regulators to address concerns stemming from the use and testing of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals,” Bauer said, and Evers’ actions don’t reflect those attempts to collaborate on the complex issue.

“If the governor was truly looking to protect the environment, he would have continued to work closely with the business community on this topic,” Bauer said.