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Defending the Right to Safe Drinking Water in Wisconsin

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Photo Jorge Roman-Romero
Photo Jorge Roman-Romero

Jorge Roman-Romero, a 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Brico Fund, recently spoke with us about advocating for safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities with his host organization, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Inc.

What inspired you to pursue a career focused on water pollution and environmental justice?

Inspired by Dr. King’s legacy on civil rights law, my Equal Justice Works Fellowship focuses on water pollution and environmental justice to confront the fact that vulnerable populations disproportionately bear the health risks of pollution. Starting my environmental law career advocating for people to have the right to clean water regardless of skin color, cultural background, or socioeconomic status is a dream come true.

Starting my environmental law career advocating for people to have the right to clean water regardless of skin color, cultural background, or socioeconomic status is a dream come true.

As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, you advocate for disadvantaged communities in Wisconsin that face disproportionate exposure to toxic pollutants from contaminated water. More specifically, your Fellowship addresses contamination by group of toxic and persistent synthetic chemicals known as per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Can you share more about this public health threat and the potential health effects of PFAS exposure?

PFAS are a family of thousands man-made chemicals produced since the 1940s and used in industrial processes and consumer goods due to their heat, oil, and water-resistant properties. Due to environmental and public health concerns, PFAS manufacturers agreed to phase out national production of two types of PFAS––PFOA and PFOS––in the early 2000s. However, thousands of new chemicals were developed and produced in lieu of.r.

Drinking water is the main pathway of exposure, and data so far reveals that approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population is served by water systems with PFAS-contaminated water. Without a comprehensive regulatory response, our right to safe drinking water is in peril. PFAS are of high concern because they are extremely resistant to degradation in the environment, persist in water and air for long periods, and bioaccumulate in our bodies over time; characteristics for which they have been termed “forever chemicals.” The widespread contamination of these hazardous chemicals is a serious public health threat because exposure to several PFAS has been linked to cancer, reproductive disorders, impaired fetal development, thyroid hormone disruption, and immunodeficiencies.

You’ve been working on a comprehensive advocacy response to defend the right to safe drinking water in Wisconsin. Can you tell us more about the multi-pronged strategy and how you are working with state and federal agencies and offices?

To better explain the multi-pronged strategy of my Fellowship, constituting of (1) regulatory advocacy, (2) public awareness campaigns, and (3) direct legal action, here is some regulatory background on PFAS in Wisconsin:

Approximately two-thirds of people in Wisconsin rely on drinking water from groundwater sources. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently investigating dozens of sites of PFAS contamination around the state. Unfortunately, because the federal establishment of drinking water maximum contaminant levels under the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFAS are years away, it is up to the DNR to respond to this public health threat. Currently, the state agency is in the process of establishing groundwater and drinking water quality standards for two types of PFAS. However, the Wisconsin Administrative Act Procedure Act makes it cumbersome for protective rules to be finalized. The Natural Resources Board, the supervisory body of the DNR, must first approve the proposed rules. Then, the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules has unilateral veto power to either prevent proposed rules from finalizing or suspend finalized rules at the end of the rule-making process.

I have been working with impacted communities to amplify their voices in the comment period of the rule-making process urging the DNR to finalize the proposed rules that will prompt a systemic response to abate PFOS and PFOA contamination. I have also developed toolkits with information about the rule-makings to bring public awareness and foster public participation. Additionally, my regulatory advocacy has incorporated an environmental justice lens to ensure that environmental justice and equity are guiding principles of the statewide response to PFAS pollution. I am also continuing to work on legal theories if litigation becomes necessary in the rule-making process.

Related to other PFAS substances of concern not subject to current rule-makings, I am exploring vehicles to request federal agencies, like the Center for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency, to test and develop toxicological health data in Wisconsin to spur additional rule-making efforts. Finally, to better identify sources of pollution and unknown communities at risk, I will be leading an effort to retrieve data under Wisconsin’s open records law from utilities that have tested but not yet disclosed information to the public about the severity of the contamination.

My regulatory advocacy has incorporated an environmental justice lens to ensure that environmental justice and equity are guiding principles of the statewide response to PFAS pollution.

Part of your work also involves creating educational materials on the risks of toxic exposure and promoting local activism to spur statewide water testing. What are some of the ways you are sharing these materials with affected communities and what does public involvement look like to you when it comes to local activism?

Public participation is a crucial feature of my Fellowship. I am collaborating with various environmental attorneys in the state to prepare and distribute toolkits with the factual and legal issues surrounding the PFOS and PFOA rule-makings. Further, we hosted a webinar where we provided an opportunity for members of various affected communities to ask questions regarding the rule-making process. Again, without fostering public involvement and activism, the legal and regulatory aspects of my Fellowship will not have meaningful effects.

Without fostering public involvement and activism, the legal and regulatory aspects of my fellowship will not have meaningful effects.

Lastly, what has been the most exciting part of being an Equal Justice Works Fellow and what are you hoping to achieve in the first year of your Fellowship?

The most exciting part of my Fellowship is that I get to work on cutting edge water quality issues through a civil rights lens. Removing barriers to equal protection and fostering equitable access to decision-making processes are principles embedded in the American constitutional project and I appreciate the opportunity I have as a Fellow to advance these principles.

The most exciting part of my Equal Justice Works Fellowship is that I get to work on cutting edge water quality issues through a civil rights lens.

To learn more about Jorge’s Fellowship, visit his profile here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow