Dear DNR…

Madison Environmental Justice, Dec 15, 2021 | By Maria C. Powell, PhD
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Fishing Starkweather Creek
[Above, Eric Xiong from the Truax neighborhood fishing in 2018 at the mouth of Madison’s heavily PFAS-contaminated Starkweather Creek with his brother, MEJO Vice President Touyeng Xiong]
Dear DNR… 

I have known for some time about the deadline today on proposed standards WY-23-19, Surface Water Standards for PFOS and PFOA. But weeks ago, feeling demoralized and beleaguered as I often do these days, I had decided not to submit any comments. I know from decades of submitting comments to government agencies, including DNR, it would probably be a waste of my time, since my voice carries little to no weight compared to more powerful actors such as corporations, industries, and municipal/utility lobbying groups–who have easy access to government agencies and can (and do) influence their decisions behind closed doors .

Yesterday, however, thinking about the historical, cultural and regulatory context of the proposed standards, I was oddly inspired to draft a letter to DNR (below)—and today, in light of what I had written, I hastily put together some thoughts and questions about the details of the proposed standards and the approach DNR is using.

I know few will read them, and if they do, they won’t matter. Nevertheless, here they are, for the record.

Maria Powell

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Dear DNR,

Firstly, to the DNR professionals who worked very hard to develop these proposed standards—thank you. I believe that most of you care about environment and public health, and are doing your best to develop protective standards within the expectations and constraints of your jobs.

But I also believe that, whether you know it or not, you are working within a very deeply broken regulatory system. Because it is so broken, your work can, at best, place teeny tiny Band-Aids on gushing wounds—or less than best, put very expensive Band-Aids on already dead bodies. At worst, it may—your good intentions notwithstanding—facilitate the spewing of more toxic poisons into our world by giving polluters tickets (permits) to pollute.

This is not your fault. It’s the broken regulatory system you work within, created by our pathological industrial-techno-capitalist system, which is hell-bent on making people sick (and killing them)—not to mention, depleting and polluting the planet—in the name of profits for a small number of individuals and corporate entities. Corporations and polluters are the most powerful players in this regulatory system—more powerful than you as public servants. The agencies you work for are “captured” by these corporations.

Too late?

When my great-great grandparents and their five children came to Madison from northern England in 1851, our spring-fed lakes were so clean they could drink right out of them. Ho-Chunk Indians and their ancestors lived here for around 12,000 years prior to their arrival, without poisoning the lakes, until most were violently removed by the U.S. government.

When the sixth child in the family—my great grandfather, born in Madison just after they arrived here—pulled a fish bigger than himself from Lake Monona as a child (according to the local paper), this fish had no man-made poisons in it.

Sadly and ignorantly, my ancestors and their contemporaries made a toxic mess of our beautiful lake paradise–a “veritable Garden of Eden” according to early visitors to the area–within a few decades. Now, a hundred and seventy years later, Madisonians have thoroughly poisoned the lakes, fish, and formerly pure artesian deep aquifers (which supply our drinking water) with countless synthetic chemicals that cause an untold numbers of serious health problems and deaths. Government and political leaders in this privileged, highly educated city, focused on attracting more and more development while supporting and protecting businesses, industries, and the U.S military, did little to prevent this, nor did scholars at the University of Wisconsin, established here before the city was even incorporated.

The U.S. EPA and associated federal and Wisconsin DNR regulations were created in the 1970s, well after countless toxic chemicals had already been released for decades. So even at that point, fifty years ago, in regards to some contaminants (including PCBs, PFAS, DDT and other pesticides, and more) regulators were faced with trying to put Band-Aids on gushing wounds, trying to clean up an already very poisoned environment. Or, they just pretended many of these highly persistent “legacy” poisons were no longer there (a common strategy to this day).

PFAS compounds were first created in the 1930s, and then were used in the Manhattan project in creating the Bomb during World War II. After that, companies like DuPont made huge profits selling PFAS for Teflon pans, firefighting foams, and zillions of other consumer products.

Now, PFAS and other fluorinated chemicals are central to our way of life—they’re in our food packaging, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, airplanes, cars, Internet, and the electronics we could not live without (and by which I am writing this letter now and sending it magically through the ethers), and much more. There are thousands of toxic PFAS compounds everywhere. They are “forever chemicals.” They will never go away.

Most of these poisons eventually flow downhill (or fall out from the air) and sooner or later end up in waterways and fish. So the people most negatively affected by these poisons are often low income people, people of color and Indigenous people, who rely on self-caught fish as a food source.

Reductionist regulatory frameworks, regulatory capture

Unfortunately, from the beginning, our regulatory system was designed using a reductionist or “silo” framework that separates air, soils, surface water, drinking water, and other environmental media into different compartments as if they are not connected–defying undisputed and well-understood ecological science. Contaminants discharged into one medium eventually flow into the others–but our regulatory system is set up using a framework that, in many contexts, pretends as if this is not the case. This is to the benefit of polluters.

As we all know, all life on the planet is intimately connected. Humans and wildlife, aquatic and terrestrial, are embedded in the planet’s ecological web and sooner or later are all affected by toxic chemicals no matter where they are released. The poisons concentrate in fish, in animals higher on the food web, and ultimately in people. Even though designed by some very smart people, our regulatory system hasn’t really found a way to deal with this complexity and ecological inter-connectedness.

Perhaps most problematically, from their beginnings, EPA and DNR were captured by corporations and polluters—who found ways to convince regulators to build loopholes, exemptions, waivers, and other handy tricks and options into the laws that allow them to keep polluting with impunity. They prefer regulations that separate environmental media unscientifically into separate compartments and lobby to keep it that way. The most powerful polluters can afford environmental consultants and attorneys who are sophisticated in helping them avoid thorough environmental investigations and ignore or evade laws. Many DNR laws give polluters “tickets to pollute”—and the terms of these tickets are negotiated by corporations and their attorneys to allow them to spew as much toxic pollution as possible.

Environmental disparities and environmental justice ignored

Last but not least, our environmental regulatory system, like all of our institutions in this country, is steeped in “institutional racism;” it ignores toxic pollution’s disproportionate effects on Indigenous people and people of color, as well as low income people–or at best, gives these race and class disparities token attention. From the beginning, designed mostly by white, privileged people, our environmental regulatory system and laws were not set up to include mechanisms to assess race and class disparities, or to consider them when developing rules and standards—so to this day, most regulations do not.

Executive orders such as President Clinton’s 12898, which has a special section on addressing fish consumption disparities and fish advisories, have no legal clout and are widely ignored by regulators. State agencies, including in Wisconsin, don’t gather data on race and class disparities in exposures to toxic chemicals via fish consumption (or other pathways) or how much fish subsistence anglers actually eat. Because of this, regulations related to fish consumption do not, and cannot, adequately assess risks to protect these people and standards do not protect them.

In sum, whether purposeful or not, environmental injustices are built into the environmental regulatory system at all levels. This needs to change.

Given this deeply broken regulatory system, it is not surprising that the proposed PFOA and PFOS surface water standards seem to have been heavily influenced by corporate and municipal entities that discharge PFAS–and ignore environmental justice.

Again, here are my comments on the proposed standards, for the record.