OCONOMOWOC — The state’s largest industry lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and an Oconomowoc dry cleaner have filed a lawsuit in Waukesha County Circuit Court seeking to block the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from requiring cleanup of unregulated “emerging contaminants,” including PFAS or so-called “forever chemicals” that have polluted groundwater across the state.

Leather Rich Inc., 1250 Corporate Center Drive, Oconomowoc, is a dry cleaning business that specializes in leathers, designer bags and furs, according to its website. Court documents state Leather Rich Inc. owner Joanne Kantor was looking to sell the business in 2018 and as part of doing so entered a Wisconsin DNR program to clean the site of hazardous substances attributed to the facility to help aid the sale of the property.

However, the complaint alleges the Wisconsin DNR has prolonged the process by claiming certain substances are hazardous and designated them as “emerging contaminants,” without naming the substances or the limited concentration. The business entered a voluntary remediation program to clean up volatile organic compounds, but the DNR would not approve the cleanup plan unless it also tested for PFAS.

In December 2020, Leather Rich withdrew itself from the voluntary remediation program, believing the Wisconsin DNR “was acting beyond its authority and unnecessarily prolonging the site investigation.”

A Wisconsin DNR spokesperson said they are reviewing the complaint, but did not offer additional comment. Gov. Tony Evers’ office deferred to the DNR.

The plaintiffs say the DNR, in its administration of environmental cleanup programs, is changing policies and enforcing standards without going through a lengthy rulemaking process. “Defendants freely change what substances and concentrations of substances are considered a ‘hazardous substance’... without notice, and with no public input or legislative oversight,” the lawsuit states. “Through these changes, Defendants continually move the goalposts for the regulated community, prolonging cases, and preventing closure and redevelopment of properties.”

WMC argues the DNR should be required to go through the rulemaking process to establish a list of what it considers hazardous substances and at what quantities or concentrations.

“LRI has been actively attempting to remediate its property for nearly three years, and has not, to date, received approval from the Defendants to take any action to remediate the VOCs in the groundwater,” the civil complaint states.

To date, Leather Rich has spent over $235,000 toward investigating and remediating the property and the complaint states the requirements being applied to Leather Rich will likely approach the total value of the property.

The complaint is asking for a ruling that the Wisconsin DNR’s policy regulating emerging contaminants is unlawful; that the Wisconsin DNR’s enforcement of a numeric standard for the emerging contaminants is beyond the DNR’s statuary authority; and that the DNR must created a list of hazardous substances, or quantities or concentrations of substances which make them hazardous.

“Wisconsinites have a right to know what laws and regulations the state seeks to apply against them,” said WMC Litigation Center Executive Director Lucas Vebber in a statement. “For too long, the DNR has refused to provide the certainty that state law requires.”

Also contributing: Associated Press