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Senate approves firefighting foam restrictions

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans were poised Tuesday to pass a bill that would impose new restrictions on the use of firefighting foam containing chemicals known as PFAS in the hopes of reducing soil and water contamination, despite Democrats’ complaints that the proposal would do next to nothing.

The Senate approved the Republican-authored proposal on a voice vote Tuesday afternoon. The Assembly was expected to follow suit later in the day and send the bill to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who can sign it into law or veto it.

Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, didn’t respond to an email asking whether he supports the bill.

The governor has made improving water quality a priority, though; he signed an executive order in August directing the Department of Natural Resources to develop regulatory limits on PFAS. The Department of Natural Resources board is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to authorize the department to begin drafting those standards.

Democrats railed on the Senate floor that the foam restrictions would accomplish next to nothing. They tried to persuade Republicans to amend the bill to direct the DNR to develop regulatory standards for PFAS, even though the department is on the verge of starting that process.

“(The foam bill) does not change anything. It does not deal with existing contamination. We need to do much more,” Democratic Sen. Mark Miller said. “(PFAS contamination) is not just hypothetical. This is real. This is something we need to respond to.”

Republicans refused to amend the measure. The bill’s chief sponsor, Republican Sen. Robert Cowles, said the bill is a start and that more legislation will be coming. In the meantime, it makes no sense to reject a proposal that will protect firefighters, he said.

“This bill was not meant to be the only bill,” Cowles said.

PFAS are man-made chemicals that research suggests can decrease female fertility, increase the risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women and lower birth weights. The chemicals have been used for decades in a range of products, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers and stain-resistant sprays.

The chemicals have drawn more scrutiny in recent years as potentially toxic contaminants in ground and surface water.

Tyco Fire Products discovered in 2013 that soil and well contamination on its Marinette fire training property contained PFAS and four years later acknowledged that the chemicals had spread. The company began distributing bottled water to residents whose wells may have been contaminated.

Traces of PFAS also have been found in a number of wells in Madison. State health officials recently warned people to limit their consumption of fish from Madison’s Lake Monona in response to PFAS contamination. The state Department of Natural Resources hasn’t identified the source, but firefighters have trained with foam for years at the Dane County Regional Airport.

Under the bill, the use of firefighting foam containing intentionally added PFAS would generally be prohibited except in emergency fire situations. Firefighters would have to train with foam or other substances that don’t contain the chemicals. Foam containing PFAS could be used in testing as long as the testing facility has implemented DNR-approved containment and disposal measures to prevent releases into the environment.

Violators would face forfeitures of up to $5,000 per incident.

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