Emails between chairman, political lobbyists detail input on 'forever chemical' policies decided on by Natural Resources Board

Laura Schulte
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON – Industry lobbyists routinely communicated with Natural Resources Board chairman Frederick Prehn regarding rules for "forever chemicals" in Wisconsin, influencing the information shared with other members of the board before votes on how to regulate the toxic chemicals, according to emails obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Prehn traded thoughts about how the state should regulate the chemicals and got input from groups including the state's largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, according to the emails obtained through open records requests.

The board, which is the policy-setting arm of the Department of Natural Resources, had looked at and voted on many measures regarding PFAS in the last several years, including regulating firefighting foam containing the toxic chemicals. 

Most recently, the board chose to move forward scope statements for standards for the compounds in groundwater and drinking water in June. Eventually, the standards will again come before the board before they can be sent to the Legislature for approval. 

A number of emails show how much input lobbyists had on rules regarding "forever chemicals" in the months leading up to votes by the board. The back-and-forth between policymakers and industry representatives regarding rules or legislation isn't uncommon and often influences policies and legislation at every level. 

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In a September 2020 email, Scott Manley of WMC shared suggestions for what should be changed in Act 101, including the removal of the term "foam contaminated materials," references to reporting requirements to the DNR under the state's spills law and suggestions for how to phrase the requirement for treatment of PFAS-containing water. 

In early October 2020, Prehn shared his thoughts on a DNR press release asking for public input on the PFAS Action Plan. 

"It's nonstop from every area of the dept.," he said in an email to Scott Meyer of the Madison lobbying firm Capitol Solutions. Meyer is a registered lobbyist for Americans For Prosperity, Hunter Nation and the Wisconsin Craft Beverage Coalition, among other interests. 

Later that month, Manley sent Prehn information regarding Act 101, including an outline of what WMC believes Act 101 does and doesn't accomplish, where DNR rules diverge from previous legislation and solutions for the problems the organization sees with the rule. 

In later emails, Prehn copied and pasted the outline Manley sent him into a memo for the entire board without attributing it to the WMC. 

"I provide here for your consideration some ideas for amendments that could more closely align the proposed rule with 2019 Act 101, which was passed with bipartisan support last year," he said. 

More:What are PFAS? Here's what you need to know about the emerging contaminant group known as 'forever chemicals'

In other messages, Prehn shared his thoughts with lobbyists on a memo sent by former Sen. Dave Hansen, a Democrat of Green Bay, about his support for Act 101 and setting standards for PFAS. In an email, Prehn said no legislators are going to defend watering down the requirements. 

"This is going to be difficult," he said. 

On Oct. 27, 2020, Manley sent Prehn a list of questions to ask the American Chemistry Council — who have strongly opposed PFAS-related legislation — during the hearing on the firefighting foam rule. 

In a November email, Manley shared input on the standards recommended by the DNR in their firefighting foam rule. 

"What a joke. That foam rule was absolutely absurd, and it was portrayed by

staff as scientific evidence," Manley said. 

The emails regarding PFAS continued, and in April, Meyer and Prehn discuss the CLEAR Act, after it was reintroduced by Democrats. Previous legislation by the same name failed to gain support and did not pass through the Legislature. 

Prehn told Meyer in an email that the bill has a slim chance of passing. In response, Meyer says the legislation "is serious." 

"It won't pass but a 18 month fight ahead," the lobbyist said. 

When asked about the messages between him and the lobbyists, Prehn said he doesn't hear much from lobbyists but takes into consideration feedback from those on both sides of proposed rules. 

"Let's be honest, there are lobbyists on all sides of every issue before the NRB," he said in an email. "Everyone and every group has a right to talk to NRB members to aid us in deliberation."    

Emails did not reveal correspondences between Prehn and groups promoting greater PFAS regulation. 

Prehn says he supports PFAS regulation

Prehn said he's in support of taking up the regulation of PFAS in Wisconsin, and that he's spoken openly about the dangers of the chemicals. 

"It's how we move forward is the question," he said. "How we do it, how we evaluate it and how we regulate it." 

Prehn said Wisconsin needs to look to what other states and the federal government are doing about PFAS to make the right decisions. 

"It's constantly evolving," he said. 

Prehn noted that the board has passed several measures regarding PFAS, including the guidelines for regulations for groundwater and drinking water earlier this year, which WMC lobbied against. 

Prehn said the board will also likely see more PFAS-related policy as soon as their December meeting.

In a statement, Manley said WMC routinely communicates with policymakers regarding rules and legislation that impacts the business community. 

"We are an advocacy organization, and it is our job to help policymakers understand how businesses are impacted either positively or negatively by proposed bills and rules," he said in an email. "As an organization, WMC supports environmental policies that are fair, transparent, cost-effective and within the boundaries of the law.”

Prehn has repeatedly refused to step down from his position on the board after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced Sandra Dee Naas as his new appointee at the end of April. Prehn has continued to chair board meetings and participate in votes since May, saying there are issues he wants to remain on the board to vote over, including water quality issues such as PFAS. 

These emails aren't the first to come to light between Prehn, lobbyists and lawmakers. In August, emails obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed that Prehn sought and received counsel from aides to Republican lawmakers, lawmakers themselves and lobbyists. Previously, he claimed that he had no contact with Senate Republicans — who control whether his successor Naas is confirmed — about his refusal to step down. 

Other email records since then have shown that lobbyists met with Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu at the Capitol to discuss the Natural Resources Board and, in particular, "the term of Dr. Frederick Prehn." The meeting took place on April 13, weeks before Prehn's term expired on May 1. 

Mining concerns also raised by lobbyists

Prehn also exchanged emails on another potentially contentious issue for Wisconsin — mining. 

The DNR has been working to update rules regarding metallic mining in the state that had gone years without amendment. 

The board in January approved the updated mining rules, which raised permitting fees in addition to making sure the rules aligned with state statutes. 

In a December email, Manley laid out concerns for Prehn about proposed updates to rules for mining, specifically a phrase that would allow the DNR to designate areas as unique or unsuitable for mining activity. 

"WMC has submitted comments to the NRB explaining our concerns with this language in greater detail," he said. "If staff does not believe this language grant them broad authority to unilaterally designate land as 'unsuitable' for mining, then what would be the harm in removing it? If it doesn’t do anything, why do we need to have it in the code?"

In later emails, Prehn assures Manley he will take care of the concerning language. 

"I already have a motion coming to amend that line," Prehn said in a Dec. 3, 2020 email. "Got that covered Scott." 

In response, Manley said the news was "great to hear" and thanked the chairman. 

Before the rule was passed, however, the lines regarding unsuitable lands were updated to include that legislation must be drafted to designate any land unsuitable aside from wilderness areas, state parks, wildlife refuges and scenic rivers. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura