PRESS EDITORIAL: Chemicals that never die threaten our fragile water

The Great Lakes are a powerhouse of nature—the biggest reserve of freshwater on planet Earth, so vast that it has its own ecosystem and climate—and yet they are fragile, vulnerable to injury inflicted by the human activity that surrounds them in a watershed covering nearly 100,000 square miles.

Some of the water in every one of the five Great Lakes is contaminated with dangerous pollutants. Toxic elements and chemicals have been flushed into the lakes for more than a century. The dangers are known and many protection measures are in place, but the pollution goes on.

A small-scale but still alarming example can be found in Port Washington, where two business operators were charged with felonies for allowing lead from discarded batteries they were processing at the former location of the Simplicity Manufacturing plant on Oakland Avenue to enter the city sewage system.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice identified and prosecuted the perpetrators after tests found that sludge at the Port Washington wastewater treatment plant contained levels of lead “well in excess” of state regulations. Treated effluent from the plant is discharged into Lake Michigan. Port Washington’s drinking water comes from the lake.

The documented danger to health posed by lead in drinking water has led to aggressive enforcement of the Wisconsin’s Safe Drinking Water Act by the Department of Natural Resources, as evidenced by the arrest of the Port Washington polluters. Unfortunately, the people of Wisconsin remain unprotected from an even more insidious cause of dangerously polluted water—the human-made chemicals technically and unpronounceably named perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs), but known as “forever” chemicals because that’s how long they live in the environment.

Though there is yet no statutory regulation of PFAs, the DNR monitors water for their presence and last year issued an advisory warning against eating Lake Superior smelt after samples taken from fish caught near Madeline Island showed dangerously elevated levels of PFAs.

No one doubts that these chemicals, which have been shown to cause cancer and other life-threatening diseases, are present in other waters and fish of the Great Lakes because they are pervasive, identified in numerous inland lakes and streams and found in municipal drinking water in dozens of places in Wisconsin.

Contamination by PFAs has made tap water unsafe to drink for thousands of state residents served by municipal wells. The City of Eau Claire had to shut down six wells polluted by PFAs. The City of Marinette on Lake Michigan’s Green Bay is reported to have some of the worst PFAs-contaminated water in the country. Lower levels of PFAs have been found in a number of Wisconsin cities, including Milwaukee.

In the Town of Campbell near La Crosse, 97% of 555 private wells tested positive for PFAs contamination. A town supervisor said, “Our water is considered not only unsafe to drink, but unsafe to use to water any edible garden plant.”

Forever-chemical regulation is on the 2022 Wisconsin Legislature agenda. How effective the rules will be will depend in large part on a recommendation by the Natural Resources Board. Environmental advocates have expressed concern that the recommended regulations will be more friendly to the industries that cause PFAs pollution than they should be.

According to emails obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel though the state open records law, NRB chairman Frederick Prehn has routinely communicated about forever-chemical regulations with lobbyists for some of the industries that use PFAs in their manufacturing operations. Prehn’s term as chairman of the board ended nine months ago, but in collusion with the Legislature’s majority leaders, who have blocked ratification of his successor, he has refused to step down.

In industry, forever chemicals are useful in making Teflon cookware, electronics, degreasers, firefighting foam and food packaging materials.

But in lakes, streams and groundwater, they are potentially deadly. Like the lead that migrated from a careless recycling operation in Port Washington, forever chemicals and those who irresponsibly handle them must be subject to rules and enforcement strong enough to protect the public.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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