Tag Archives: drinking water

‘Regulatory vacuum’ exposes Wisconsin children to lead in drinking water at schools, day care centers

Almost two weeks into the school year, Melissa Corrigan got an email from the principal and superintendent of her daughters’ elementary school. Water from four West Middleton Elementary School faucets taken Sept. 1, the first day of school, had tested high for levels of lead or copper. As a safety precaution, the school would provide bottled water to students until the issue was resolved.

Corrigan — whose daughters Brooklyn and Carly are in first and fourth grades — thought little of the news, partly because the email told parents of the school west of Madison that it was “highly unlikely” that the water was unsafe to drink.

But West Middleton’s results were high — one faucet had more than six times the federal action level of 15 parts per billion of lead and nearly 19 times the federal action level of 1,300 ppb of copper. Samples from nine of the 10 faucets showed a presence of lead.

Any amount of lead can cause permanent brain damage, including reduced intelligence and behavioral problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Infants and children are considered the most vulnerable to lead’s negative effects.

Fresh evidence of the risk of lead poisoning at school surfaced Friday when Milwaukee Public Schools revealed that testing found dangerous levels of lead in 183 drinking water fountains, including at locations hosting early childhood programs. The months-long testing program involved 3,000 water fountains at 191 school district buildings. The district said it had shut down and plans to replace the fountains that tested at or above the federal action level of 15 ppb, even though “federal and state regulations do not require schools to test drinking water.”

The district failed to respond to repeated questions since mid-November from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism about whether water at the schools was being tested for lead, and calls and an email to district spokespeople Friday were not immediately returned. The testing began in June.

Efforts to protect Wisconsin children in schools and day care centers from lead in their water have fallen short on several fronts, the Center has found. Among the problems uncovered by the Center in documents and interviews:

There is a lack of testing for lead in drinking water consumed by children while away from home. Federal regulations enforced by the state of Wisconsin do not require most schools or day care centers to test at all. A 2016 USA Today investigation found that an estimated 90 percent of schools nationally are not required to test their water.

There has been confusion over proper lead testing procedures at some schools, day care centers and public water systems in Wisconsin, as the Center has reported. This year, the state Department of Natural Resources waited nine months to send an official notice to public water system operators that the EPA had updated its testing recommendations in response to flaws uncovered by Flint, Michigan’s lead-in-water crisis.

Lead service lines, a significant source of lead in drinking water, continue to provide water to hundreds of schools and day care centers around Wisconsin. In other communities, officials are not sure how many schools and day cares have lead pipes.

Because of West Middleton’s rural Dane County location, the school has its own well and is among the minority of schools that must comply with some of the same testing requirements as municipal water systems. Lead generally makes its way into water not at the water plant but as it travels through service lines and indoor plumbing, all of which could contain lead.

Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District Superintendent George Mavroulis said after learning of the testing results, the school immediately shut off drinking water and consulted with a private testing company and a liaison from the DNR.

Two weeks after the initial test, the K-4 school with 400 students had the same faucets — and three water fountains — tested again. The levels of lead and copper returned to below the action level, and students and staff were again allowed to use the water.

“We tried to do everything in our power to make sure everyone was safe,” Mavroulis said.

The school has since replaced two faucets and plans to replace two more over winter break, he said. Perry Hibner, the district’s spokesman, believed two human errors caused the school’s initial water samples to be high in lead and copper: not flushing the system beforehand, as the DNR suggests after long periods of non-use like summer break, and removing the aerators from the faucets, which allowed a higher than normal water flow.

Subsequent samples were taken after one hour of flushing and six hours of non-use.

The EPA issued new nationwide guidance in February clarifying that public water systems should not remove aerators or flush systems before sampling to avoid masking the level of lead in the water. DNR spokesman Jim Dick said West Middleton was in a “unique situation” because of its failure to previously flush the school’s system after the water had been stagnant for an extended period of time.

Going forward, however, the district will need to conduct two rounds of testing in the next year to assure the water is safe — and follow all of the appropriate sampling methods, he said.

After reviewing West Middleton’s test results, Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech University researcher who helped train Flint researchers, said telling parents a health risk was highly unlikely was “a stunningly irresponsible statement, especially after Flint.”

Said Lambrinidou: “There is no safe level of lead in drinking water.”

All licensed day care centers in Wisconsin are required to identify and mitigate dangers from lead paint, but only centers that use private wells are required to eliminate lead hazards in drinking water, according to Joe Scialfa, spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families.

The USA Today investigation found that among schools and day care centers that are required to test, Wisconsin recorded the fourth-highest number of lead exceedances, with 24 between 2012 and 2015.

Lead in small doses dangerous

Exposure to even small amounts of lead can cause permanent damage. A 2012 study of nearly 4,000 fourth-graders in Milwaukee showed that those with elevated levels of lead — even below what is considered dangerous — scored significantly lower on reading and math tests than those without elevated blood-lead levels.

The Center reported in February that at least 176,000 homes and businesses in Wisconsin receive water from lead service lines, which can account for 50 to 75 percent of lead contamination in tap water.

Milwaukee says it has removed lead service lines leading to all of its public school buildings. Madison is thought to be the first city in the nation to remove all lead service lines from its water utility service area.

Milwaukee plans to focus $2.6 million from a new $14.5 million DNR program to begin replacing lead service lines leading to 384 licensed day care centers and 12 private schools in the city. In the meantime, the Milwaukee Health Department has advised those centers to reduce lead exposure by flushing water before using it and consider using only filtered or bottled water for preparing formula.

An additional 17 Wisconsin communities ranging from Antigo to Waterloo plan to use money from the program to replace lead service lines leading to their schools and day care centers.

School officials in Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts also have found high lead levels in the drinking water at hundreds of schools.

And day care centers — where infants could be fed baby formula made with tap water or toddlers could eat food cooked in lead-laden water — are of particular concern.

Rep. LaTonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, operated a day care business out of her 90-year-old home for several years before running for public office. She recently spent $10,000 to replace corroded pipes throughout her northwest side house, which is served by lead service lines.

Johnson said she used a cooler to provide water to children in her care, but not every day care provider does.

“I’m sure people use sink water,” she said. “It’s right there.”

A ‘regulatory vacuum’

In the Lead Contamination Control Act, the EPA recommends that schools test water at each cold water tap — although no frequency is mentioned — share abnormal results with the public and take action to remediate any problems. But these are not requirements.

News investigations have shown that administrators in Newark, New Jersey, Portland, Oregon and Ithaca, New York knew about lead in water at schools for several months or years before the findings became public. Lambrinidou, the Virginia Tech researcher, and others decried the “regulatory vacuum” surrounding water testing in schools in a 2010 paper titled Failing Our Children.

“If you’re a parent … it’s better to know that they’re not doing much than to have false comfort that the schools are taking care of them,” Lambrinidou said.

School leaders mixed on lead mandate

A Center survey of all 424 Wisconsin school district superintendents revealed a mixture of attitudes toward identifying and mitigating lead hazards. Most chose not to complete the survey at all.

The 47 respondents were split on whether there should be a statewide requirement that all public schools test their water for lead. While some do test — either voluntarily or because they have private wells — others said paying for testing is simply not an option.

A Fox 6 News investigation in May surveyed the 10 largest school districts in southeastern Wisconsin, asking if they had tested their schools for lead. Six answered; all said “No.”

Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said most of his members support water testing. But if it identifies lead hazards that require costly remediation, he said, “We feel like there ought to be some federal support and state support to do that.”

When officials at Riverside Elementary School east of Wausau discovered that lead from pipes in its foundation was leaching into the water, they opted to remove the school’s drinking fountains entirely. Assistant Superintendent Jack Stoskopf said the school relies on a filtration system for tap water and has spent about $1,000 a month over the past 10 years on bottled drinking water.

“That’s far less expensive than tearing up the foundation of the school and tearing up the pipes,” he said.

Crystal Wozniak, who lives in Green Bay with her 4-year-old son Casheous, said she tried to avoid lead in drinking water when deciding where he would attend preschool. Casheous was lead poisoned when he was 9 months old, possibly from paint.

“The water at a school may be more harmful because they’re ingesting the water, and the food there is made with the water,” she said. “All the kids aren’t necessarily going around licking the walls, but they’re drinking the water.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Wisconsin schools, day care centers slated for lead service line removal under new DNR program

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources launched a $14.5 million program to help “disadvantaged municipalities” replace lead service lines. Of the 38 recipients, 18 communities, including Milwaukee, planned to use at least some of the money to replace lead lines leading to schools and day care centers.

Below is a list of the communities and the estimated number of schools or day care centers with lead service lines slated for replacement under this program:

Antigo — 4 of 4

Ashland — 5 of 5

Clintonville — 2 of 10

Eagle River — 10 of 10

Town of Florence — 2 of 10

Manitowoc — 15 of 15

Marshfield — 10 of 20

Milwaukee — 400 of 400

Monroe — 5 of 5

Mosinee — 2 of 2

Park Falls — 5 of 5

Platteville — 2 of 2

Princeton — 4 of 4

Randolph — 5 of 5

St. Francis — 2 of 5

Sheboygan — 11 of 11

Stratford — 4 of 4

Waterloo — 3 of 3

 

Wisconsin DNR fails to update lead testing guidelines for drinking water

Nine months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned against flushing water systems before testing for lead, the state Department of Natural Resources has not yet passed that advice on to public water systems in Wisconsin.

The EPA issued a memo in late February as the lead-in-drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan was exploding into public view. The memo, intended to clear up confusion over testing procedures, declared that flushing water systems before sampling must be avoided because it can conceal high levels of lead in drinking water

Water managers in Shawano and at Riverside Elementary School near Wausau say they were not aware of the change and have continued to use flushing when testing for lead.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University professor who helped expose the Flint crisis, said that updating the testing procedures is “essential for public health protection.” Any amount of lead can cause permanent damage, including reduced intelligence and behavior problems, according to the EPA. Infants and children are considered the most vulnerable to lead’s negative effects.

“As we saw in Flint, the old protocols effectively ‘hid’ lead in water problems,” Edwards said.

“Given what we now know, data collected using the outdated protocols cannot be trusted.”

The memo also instructed EPA administrators to pass the guidance along to state drinking water program directors. DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno said the agency was notified of the guidance and she confirmed that “pre-stagnation flushing is not an appropriate sampling procedure.”

Sereno insisted the agency had responded appropriately. DNR presented the information at two industry meetings and sent an email to the Wisconsin Rural Water Association in March, she said.

Sereno added that the agency “is in the process of drafting a letter to all community water systems that will make them aware of this and other EPA memos and summarize the content.” The agency, which is responsible for enforcing federal drinking water standards in Wisconsin, expects to send the letters next week, she said.

A search of the DNR drinking water database Friday showed nearly 6,270 lead compliance sample results from 948 water systems have been reported to the agency since Feb. 29, when the EPA guidance was issued. It was not immediately known how many used the now-discredited procedure of pre-stagnation flushing, in which a water system is flushed for some period of time, water sits unused for six hours, and then samples are collected.

Sampling procedures listed on the DNR’s website indicate the water must be stagnant for six hours but do not address whether or not the tap should be flushed prior to sampling. Sereno said new instructions will be posted online to clarify this.

Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards talks with Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis before a symposium on drinking water Sept. 7, 2016 at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wis. Edwards said WisconsinÕs failure to notify local water managers of new lead testing protocols in the wake of the Flint, Michigan lead crisis could pose a danger to the public. —PHOTO: Dee J. Hall
Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards talks with Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis before a symposium on drinking water Sept. 7, 2016 at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wis. Edwards said WisconsinÕs failure to notify local water managers of new lead testing protocols in the wake of the Flint, Michigan lead crisis could pose a danger to the public. —PHOTO: Dee J. Hall

In July, EPA sent a letter reminding states to post updated protocols to their websites, saying the agency would follow up with each state “to ensure that these protocols and procedures are clearly understood and are being properly implemented to address lead and copper issues at individual drinking water systems.” The EPA did not respond to a question about whether any other states had failed to notify water managers of the updated protocols.

While some municipalities, such as the Green Bay Water Utility and the Milwaukee Water Works, were aware of the EPA memo and updated their testing procedures, others continued using outdated methods that included a flushing step — making it possible dangerous levels of lead could go unnoticed.

Shawano included pre-stagnation flushing in the procedures used for this year’s testing, which was completed over the summer. Patrick Bergner, water manager for the city of nearly 10,000 between Green Bay and Wausau, said although he works closely with a DNR liaison, he was not aware of any EPA guidance against flushing.

“I’d be happy to be informed of any changes in the procedure,” Bergner said. One of Shawano’s 21 compliance samples had a level of lead nearly three times the federal action level, which is 15 parts per billion; several more neared the limit.

DNR public water supply specialist Tony Knipfer acknowledged the need for clarification when flushing is appropriate. It is typically recommended as a way for consumers to reduce exposure to lead in their own homes, for example, but should not be done before testing.

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s been some confusion or conflicting information out on the flushing,” he said. “But from a regulatory aspect and a health and safety aspect, we’re looking for representative samples of what’s likely to be consumed.”

Milwaukee Water Works issued a statement in June saying it immediately adopted the instructions not to pre-flush. Those new instructions will be put to use next year when the utility tests 50 homes and buildings for compliance with EPA regulations.

“Prior to February of 2016, MWW did instruct residents to flush their home plumbing prior to the required six-hour stagnation period, before collecting samples for regulatory compliance purposes,” according to the memo from Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis to Mayor Tom Barrett.

“The last testing cycle (for Milwaukee) was the summer of 2014. That cycle did include the pre-stagnation flushing instruction,” Lewis wrote. “The next cycle in the summer of 2017 will not.”

Other procedures that can mask the true level of lead in drinking water include removing or cleaning faucet filters called aerators that can collect lead particles; using narrow-necked bottles that result in a slower flow of water; and sampling in cooler months when lead concentrations are lower. The EPA also urged that those procedures should end.

“While we cannot undo the past harm done from failing to detect water lead risks,” Edwards said, “there should be zero tolerance for future needless harm that arises from a false sense of security created by bad data.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Northern Wisconsin favors public oversight of water supply

An overwhelming majority of residents in northern Wisconsin support public sector oversight of drinking water resources, according to a poll conducted by the Center for Rural Communities at Northland College.

Public sector includes publicly owned utilities, as well as tribal water utilities and systems managed by local, state, tribal and federal governments.

About 640 households in Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas and Iron counties participated in the survey, conducted after state lawmakers considered but did not pass legislation to ease the process of privatizing municipal water utilities.

About 83.9 percent of those surveyed said the public sector should be responsible for guaranteeing access to safe drinking water.

About 90 percent said the public sector should notify people of any changes to water quality or water treatment.

“Nearly all respondents — 97 percent — agreed with the statement ‘water is a human right and every person should have access to clean and safe drinking water,’” said Brandon Hofstedt, associate professor of sustainable community development at Northland and faculty director at the center.

About 55.8 percent of those polled said a private entity should not profit from supplying drinking water to households.

Also, about 75 percent said a private entity should not be allowed to extract and sell water from Lake Superior or an aquifer or tributary.

Human waste pollutes some Wisconsin drinking water

Experts say Wisconsin needs tougher laws to protect resource from contamination by sewage and septic waste; state says it is reviewing landspreading rules

Manure has been blamed for much of the bacteria and viruses that pollute Wisconsin drinking water, but contamination from human waste is a problem, too.

Failing septic systems, leaking public sewer pipes and landspreading of septic waste can introduce dangerous pathogens into both rural and urban water systems.

In June 2007, 229 people were sickened by a norovirus in Door County while eating at a restaurant. Seven were hospitalized as a result of a pathogen known for spreading illness on cruise ships. The source: a leaky septic system.

In 2012, a microbiologist published research that linked widespread gastrointestinal illnesses in 14 Wisconsin communities to viruses in the public water systems. Further research showed the contaminants were likely coming from leaking municipal sewage lines.

That same year, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that top Department of Natural Resources officials went easy on a political supporter of Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, after the donor was caught violating septic waste spreading rules on fields near 40 drinking water wells, potentially exposing residents to nitrate, which can cause “blue baby syndrome,” and illness-causing pathogens.

In 1993, Wisconsin experienced the most deadly waterborne disease outbreak in U.S. history. One hundred people died and 403,000 became sick in Milwaukee when cryptosporidium contaminated the city’s drinking water. Lab tests confirmed the parasite had come from human waste.

Some experts say the state’s septic regulations and well standards are not adequate to protect public health in areas of Wisconsin with fractured bedrock, such as Door County.

In addition, municipal water systems in Wisconsin are not required to test for or treat water to kill viruses because the Legislature in 2011 rescinded a rule that would have mandated such action. And a study by a retired hydrogeologist has found that the state sometimes fails to enforce regulations that ban spreading untreated septic waste on fields vulnerable to groundwater pollution.

Septic systems are the main line of defense in rural areas against water contamination from human waste. The potentially lethal waterborne disease outbreak at a new restaurant in Door County in June 2007 illustrates the weakness of existing regulation, especially in areas with fractured bedrock.

In a 2011 paper in the journal Ground Water, a team of Wisconsin scientists investigated the outbreak, which began with four employees who got acute gastroenteritis. The virus that caused the sickness also was detected in the restaurant’s new water well and septic system.

Researchers concluded that the cracked bedrock under the restaurant, which is common in eastern Wisconsin, allowed waste from the broken septic system to move rapidly into the restaurant’s drinking water well.

The scientists noted that Door County and other areas that sit atop such karst geology have long dealt with the vulnerability of their fractured limestone aquifers to such contamination. They cited a Nov. 22, 1955, headline from the Door County Advocate newspaper warning that local geology had been tied to cases of “summer flu.”

Most residents, the researchers wrote, assume that waste from septic systems is biodegraded by soil on the way down to the groundwater and then safely diluted. But that is not always true.

Experts: Stricter rules needed

The researchers recommended that the state should reconsider allowing conventional septic systems to be built above fractured limestone aquifers, especially those serving facilities such as restaurants that generate a lot of wastewater.

John Teichtler, Door County’s sanitarian, said recent surveys show that about one-third of 6,450 septic systems inspected in his county were classified as failing to work. Teichtler said systems are considered to be failing when they do not meet current standards requiring 3 feet of soil to bedrock, are discharging to the surface or allowing waste to back up into buildings.

Sampling results in Door County, according to the University of Wisconsin-Extension, show that at any one time in the county, at least one-third of the private wells contain bacteria from animal or human waste.

Ken Bradbury, director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and one of the authors of the Ground Water paper, said he believes the state’s septic laws must be updated to account for the susceptibility of areas such as Door County.

“There is still the perception that just because there is a septic system that meets code, everything is fine,” Bradbury said. “Well, everything is not fine.”

In its 2015 report to the Legislature, the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council, a multi-agency panel that advises state government on drinking water issues, also issued a stern call for tougher rules for septic systems and well construction in geology marked by fractured bedrock. Current requirements in these areas, the report said, “are inadequate to protect public health and the environment.”

Despite the dangers of contamination from septic systems, Gov. Scott Walker last year proposed eliminating the Wisconsin Fund, which provides money for low-income families to replace failing systems. The fund provided $2.3 million to 500 low-income property owners in 2014-15.

Officials in Shawano County, which opposed Walker’s proposal, pegged the cost of replacing a septic system at $6,000 to $7,000 for a traditional system and as much as $14,000 for a mound system that provides more protection in areas of fractured bedrock.

In the final budget, the Legislature partially restored the fund but slashed it to $1.6 million this year and $840,000 in 2016-17 — a move criticized by John Hausbeck, who oversees Dane County’s septic program.

“There are homeowners everywhere in the state that do not have the money to replace a septic system,” Hausbeck said. “So they limp along until they end up with water contamination.”

Landspreading under fire

Enforcement of state laws regulating landspreading of septic waste on farm fields also has come under criticism.

In 2015, a citizen watchdog group called the Dunn County Groundwater Guardian Community found 150 sites on which the state DNR allows spreading of septic waste that were below or near the minimum standard for proper soil percolation, or the rate at which water and contaminants move through the soil. Under state law, fields with soil percolation rates greater than 6 inches per hour cannot be used for landspreading.

Neil Koch, a retired hydrologist who organized the citizen group and developed the map of percolation rates, found that 150 of the 400 sites used for spreading septic waste in Dunn County had rates of 5 to 20 inches per hour. Koch said the DNR also recently told him the agency had failed to notify him of an additional 90 landspreading sites in the county.

In a March letter to Koch, Susan Sylvester, director of the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau, acknowledged that the sites he identified did not meet minimal requirements but said reduced application rates were approved because of a low threat to drinking water. Sylvester said lime is added to the waste to kill pathogens, and exposure to sunlight and heat further reduce the risk.

Sylvester added, however, that the agency is reevaluating septage and other landspreading sites throughout Wisconsin. And she noted that compliance checks in Wood County have prompted an increase in septage being hauled to wastewater treatment plants — an option Koch has identified as an “easy solution” to the problem.

Improper application of septic waste in Dunn County, Koch said, “may be the tip of the iceberg.”

Viruses in water also cause illness

Numerous water experts also say the state is failing to protect Wisconsin residents from human and animal viruses in municipal drinking water supplies — some of it tied to leaky municipal sewer systems. Neither federal nor state rules require municipalities to disinfect drinking water drawn from groundwater, which supplies about two-thirds of the state’s potable water, nor are municipalities required to test for viruses.

Viruses are a relative newcomer to the list of pathogens known to endanger drinking water. But the science behind their presence — and their impact on the health of thousands — is already well-documented.

Researcher and microbiologist Mark Borchardt discovered viruses in Wisconsin groundwater in a series of studies while working for Marshfield Clinic. In 2004, for example, Borchardt found that 50 percent of water samples collected from four La Crosse municipal wells tested positive for disease-causing viruses, including enteroviruses, rotavirus, hepatitis A and norovirus.

During 2006 and 2007, Borchardt looked at 14 Wisconsin communities with populations above 1,300 that did not disinfect their municipal water. Tap water was tested, and 621 households were surveyed to determine if viruses were making families sick.

The studies showed that nearly one-quarter of the samples taken from home faucets were swimming with viruses that can cause illness.

Among the 1,079 children and 580 adults surveyed, there were 1,843 cases of acute gastrointestinal illness during the study period. Borchardt attributed 6 to 22 percent of the cases to contaminated drinking water. Researchers also found that up to 63 percent of acute gastrointestinal illnesses among children younger than age 5 were likely caused by norovirus in the drinking water.

Subsequent studies showed the source of the viruses to be leaking municipal sewer pipes, according to a UW-Extension article by Madeline Gotkowitz, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

“Many of these sewers date back to the early 1900s,” wrote Gotkowitz, “and they are cracked and leaky. Inward leakage to these pipes often causes overflows at sewage treatment plants during large rainstorms. However, these pipes also leak raw sewage outward and are common sources of groundwater pollution in urban areas, towns and villages.”

The research illustrates the crucial link between maintenance of infrastructure and water quality. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2013 that it would cost Wisconsin $7.1 billion to adequately maintain and upgrade drinking water systems over the next 20 years. Municipal wastewater treatment updates and repairs alone would cost about $6.4 billion, the group found.

Several years ago, the city of Adams in Adams County replaced its entire water and sewer system. When workers dug up sections of sewer line, they discovered the old clay pipes had disintegrated, city administrator Bob Ellisor told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2009.

“There were some areas where the sewer didn’t exist anymore,” Ellisor said. “The sewage wasn’t really making it to the sewage plant.”

A “relatively simple” way to ensure the safety of water is to disinfect it, Gotkowitz wrote. Yet, the state does not require such treatment — even in the face of Borchardt’s studies.

In 2009, under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, the Natural Resources Board passed a rule requiring disinfection of municipal water by 2013. But in 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature blocked it on a largely party-line vote. As of February, 56 communities in Wisconsin serving nearly 65,000 people did not treat their water for viruses, according to a report published by Wisconsin Public Radio citing DNR figures.

Among the lawmakers who helped block the rule was then-Rep. Erik Severson, R-Star Prairie, a physician. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that residents would probably prefer occasional sickness to the cost of upgrading municipal water systems.

Todd Ambs, who was the head of the DNR’s Water Division until 2010, recalls being shocked by the decision. Ambs now heads the nonprofit Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which includes more than 100 groups dedicated to restoring the health of the Great Lakes.

Said Ambs: “That may be, to me, the worst piece of legislation that has gone through the Legislature.”

This report was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

 

Safeguarding your drinking water: What you can do

Wisconsin residents can take a number of steps to make sure their drinking water is safe. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you live in one of the 940,000 households in Wisconsin that rely on a private well, have your water tested or test it yourself. The state Department of Natural Resources recommends getting your well tested once a year for coliform bacteria and any time you notice a change in how your water looks, smells or tastes. Check with your county health department on what contaminants may be found in your area and for which you might also want to test.
  • You can get more information on testing from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, including details on how to obtain testing kits and the costs of various tests. The test for coliform bacteria, for example, costs $29, as do the tests for lead and nitrate.
  • For those using municipal water, get the consumer confidence report from your local water utility. Or you can access the reports on the DNR’s database of public water systems. Also, find out if your utility disinfects for viruses or uses corrosion control to help keep lead out of pipes.
  • If your home was built before 1984, consider having it assessed for lead in the water. While pre-1950 homes often have lead service lines, some homes built before 1984 may have lead solder on the pipes or fixtures that contain lead. Consult the DNR website for safer ways to use water that may contain lead.
  • Consider a filter for your water. But make sure that the filter you choose is effective for removing the specific contaminants that are in your water. The University of Wisconsin-Extension website has advice on which to choose.

— Ron Seely, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Failure at the Faucet, a yearlong investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, found that hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents are at risk of consuming drinking water tainted with substances including lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, naturally occurring chemicals such as arsenic, and other contaminants.

The problem persists, and in some areas is worsening, because of flawed agricultural practices, development patterns that damage water quality, geologic deposits of harmful chemicals, porous karst and sand landscapes, lack of regulation of the private wells serving an estimated 1.7 million people, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality.  

Alan Ashley stands on his mound septic system in Ephraim, Wisconsin, on March 12, 2016. In 1975, Ashley installed what he says was one of the first mound systems in Door County. The cost to replace the system for his four-bedroom house in 2007 was around $14,000. — PHOTO: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Alan Ashley stands on his mound septic system in Ephraim, Wisconsin, on March 12, 2016. In 1975, Ashley installed what he says was one of the first mound systems in Door County. The cost to replace the system for his four-bedroom house in 2007 was around $14,000. — PHOTO: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

 

Despite state efforts, arsenic continues to poison many private wells

By the time Bradley Burmeister met his high school science teacher more than a decade ago, concerns had already surfaced about an ancient poison that was appearing in drinking water around their Fox River Valley community. Burmeister never suspected, though, that his family’s well would provide some of the scariest data.

High levels of arsenic, a substance used as a poison since the Middle Ages, had been detected in 1989 in several counties in the Fox Valley region of northeastern Wisconsin. In 2003, Seymour High School science teacher Dennis Rohr and his students began a study of private well water samples from the area that would continue for the next five years.

The arsenic level the students detected in the Burmeister family’s well was off the charts: 1,650 parts per billion (ppb), or 165 times the federal health standard of 10 ppb. Burmeister — whose experience in the study sparked an interest in science that culminated in medical school — recalls it being the highest level found in the study.

To this day, Burmeister’s parents regularly buy a case of gallon-sized water jugs at the grocery store to use for drinking and cooking. Despite the inconvenience, Burmeister said his parents feel it is a more affordable way to address their arsenic problem than drilling a new well or purchasing a water treatment system.

The Burmeisters are not the only family having to find alternatives to turning on the tap; arsenic is a major concern in Outagamie and Winnebago counties. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources designated an arsenic advisory area in these counties in 1993 and implemented stricter regulations for testing and well construction in 2004 and 2014.

But arsenic problems are not confined to northeastern Wisconsin. Levels above the federal standard have been detected in 51 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, according to a 2006 Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council report.

The most serious health effects from arsenic exposure include a variety of cancers, nerve damage, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Chronic low-level exposure during childhood has also been linked to decreased intelligence.

In a 2014 study, researchers studying schoolchildren in Maine found regular consumption of drinking water containing 5 ppb of arsenic or more was associated with a significant IQ reduction in students in grades three to five.

“The magnitude of the association … raises the possibility that levels (of arsenic in drinking water) that are not uncommon in the United States pose a threat to child development,” the researchers wrote.

Human activity can mobilize arsenic

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the federal health standard, or maximum contaminant level, for arsenic in public drinking water from 50 to 10 ppb. This step reflected the increasing scientific evidence for the dangers of arsenic exposure to human health and matched the World Health Organization’s global drinking water standard.

The highest level ever detected in the state was found in a private well in northeastern Wisconsin. The well tested at 15,000 ppb — 1,500 times the new federal threshold.

“We have an arsenic hot spot in Wisconsin,” said John Luczaj, a geoscience associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Madeline Gotkowitz, a hydrogeologist at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, agreed. “Arsenic is a big problem in Wisconsin, and I don’t think many realize that,” she said.

In 1987, the DNR discovered that the St. Peter Sandstone aquifer in northeastern Wisconsin contains a high concentration of sulfide minerals which, when exposed to oxygen, can break down into arsenic. Knowing that it was the water source of more than 20,000 private wells, agency officials knew this might spell trouble.

“Seymour High School rests directly above the St. Peter Sandstone formation,” science teacher Rohr said. “So arsenic was the main focus (of our water study) as it impacted our local community the most.”

The oxygen that sets off the breakdown of sulfide minerals can be introduced by well drilling and disinfection methods, or when the water table — the level below which the ground is saturated with water — is drawn down. This may occur during periods of drought, or be triggered by human use, such as the operation of high-capacity wells.

Because of this interplay between geology and human activity, Luczaj said, private wells whose water previously tested fine for arsenic may lose their integrity.

Patrick Laughrin is all too familiar with the effect of high-capacity wells in his part of the state. He lives in Hilbert in Calumet County, just east of Winnebago County.

“The arsenic in our well showed up for the first time when the high-capacity wells came in and dropped the water table,” Laughrin said. “It makes sense. If you drop the water table, you get more oxygen and that releases more arsenic into your water.”

State steps up regulation

In 2004, the DNR introduced tougher arsenic laws in Winnebago and Outagamie counties. With 20 percent of the private well samples there analyzed in 1992-93 exceeding the EPA’s new health standard of 10 ppb, this area was thought to pose the greatest exposure threat to the largest number of residents. The new regulation required all drilling and disinfection methods to minimize the exposure of sulfide rocks to oxygen.

For Luczaj, of UW-Green Bay, this was a step in the right direction, but he said it may not go far enough.

“The geology doesn’t stop at political boundaries,” Luczaj said. “The area definitely extends into the neighboring counties. It’s pretty likely that we’ll see increasing problems as aquifers get drawn down.”

A 2013 study of 3,868 private wells from across the state found 2.4 percent of them exceeded arsenic levels of 10 ppb. If that proportion was applied to all of the estimated 940,000 households on private wells in Wisconsin — a calculation endorsed by the study’s lead author — residents of 22,560 homes may be consuming unsafe levels of the chemical.

Testing, grants rarely used

The DNR has a well compensation grant program that makes residents whose well water exceeds 50 ppb of arsenic — five times the federal standard — eligible for up to $9,000 to drill a new well. The program can be used to address other types of contamination as well.

However, during the past five years, only 10 or fewer grants were awarded per year. Households whose water contains up to 49 ppb — almost 10 times the amount of arsenic shown to impact a child’s intellectual development — have to cover the cost of a new well on their own, or pay for other options that will make their water safe to drink.

To reduce arsenic exposure, people must be aware of its presence in their drinking water in the first place. But with a mere 16 percent of private well owners in Wisconsin estimated to test their water annually, the number of residents who are unaware is large.

Raising that awareness was part of Rohr’s goals when he began his water study in 2003. In 2014 — 11 years after Rohr’s study — the DNR revised its arsenic regulation yet again, recognizing the persistent nature of Wisconsin’s arsenic problem.

This time, the new state law required that arsenic, in addition to coliform bacteria and nitrate, be tested at the time of a property transfer, but only if the buyer requests a well inspection. The same three contaminants also have to be tested after the completion of certain well repair work, such as fixing a broken water pump.

Bad wells replaced by city water

Some communities in Wisconsin have addressed their arsenic problem by offering citizens a switch from private to municipal water. City water is required by law to be tested regularly for arsenic, which takes the burden of monitoring water quality off the homeowners’ shoulders.

The Stilson family in Oshkosh took advantage of the opportunity to switch in 2000, following several years of having bottled water delivered to their home after the level of arsenic in their well rose to 999 ppb, or nearly 100 times the health standard.

“We said, ‘Let’s just get city water and get it over with,’ ” Lynn Stilson said.

When drilling a new well is too expensive, a switch to city water not possible, or purchasing bottled water too big a hassle, another remediation option is to install an in-home water treatment system. The most cost-effective method is called a reverse osmosis system, which removes 95 percent of arsenic, as well as other contaminants.

Luczaj said vigilance is the key to avoiding arsenic, since human activity can increase the amount of the naturally occurring contaminant in well water. “A one-time test for arsenic is not at all sufficient,” he said.

Gabrielle Menard and Elise Bayer, students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, contributed to this story. This report was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.


Legionnaires’ outbreak linked to Flint River drinking water fiasco

The head of a Flint hospital that found Legionnaires’ disease bacteria in its water system more than a year ago said he and experts suspected the Flint River was a likely source of the contaminant.

Don Kooy, president of McLaren hospital, said he was surprised that Michigan and local health agencies didn’t inform the public about a Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genesee County in 2014–15 until just a few weeks ago.

The outbreak occurred while Flint residents were repeatedly complaining about dirty tap water coming from the river — a crisis that ultimately caused exposure to lead and other health problems.

“It’s a public health issue,” Kooy told The Associated Press. “There were people in the city of Flint seeing brown water. It would seem logical that there would have been public reporting or public awareness about the Legionella situation.”

At least 87 Legionnaires’ cases, including nine deaths, were confirmed across Genesee County during a 17-month period. Public officials say they haven’t determined if Flint River water was responsible.

Legionnaires’ is a type of pneumonia. The bacteria live in the environment and thrive in warm water. People can get sick if they inhale mist or vapor from contaminated water systems, hot tubs and cooling systems.

Kooy said two cases could have been related to exposure to Legionella bacteria found in the hospital. He said both patients were successfully treated.

“We were concerned that the city water was the source of it, but to this day I don’t think we could make a definitive statement,” he said.

McLaren hospital spent more than $300,000 on a water treatment system and also turned to bottled water for patients.

“The change in (Flint) water quality was a likely factor in causing the increase in Legionnaires’ disease,” said Janet Stout, a Pittsburgh microbiologist and Legionella expert who advised the hospital.

In April 2015, Laurel Garrison, a Legionnaires’ specialist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told state officials by email that the outbreak deserved a “comprehensive investigation.”

In an email three months earlier, Jim Collins, the head of Michigan’s Communicable Disease Division, said the number of cases at that time “likely represents the tip of the iceberg.”

Nonetheless, there was no public announcement at that time.

It was recently revealed that high levels of lead have been detected in Flint’s water since officials switched from the Detroit municipal system and began drawing from the Flint River as a cost-saving measure in April 2014. Some children’s blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems.

An advisory panel to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Jan.22 recommended steps the state should take to restore reliable drinking water to Flint, including hiring an unbiased third-party to declare when the system is free of lead.

The recommendations came a day after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the state and city that their efforts so far had failed. The agency ordered them to protect public health and act to ensure Flint’s water system is made safe.

A regional director of the EPA resigned in connection with the drinking water crisis on Jan. 21, the same day the agency’s chief issued an emergency order directing state and city officials to take action to protect public health.

The EPA said Susan Hedman, head of the agency’s regional office in Chicago whose jurisdiction includes Michigan, was stepping down Feb. 1 so the EPA could focus “solely on the restoration of Flint’s drinking water.”

While much of the blame has been directed at Snyder and state officials, particularly the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, some have faulted the EPA’s Region 5 office for not acting more forcefully.

The agency also released a letter from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to Snyder outlining terms of the order.

Among other requirements, the agency said the city should: Submit plans for ensuring that Flint’s water has adequate treatment, including corrosion controls; ensure city personnel are qualified to operate the water system in a way that meets federal quality standards; and create a website where citizens can get information.

The agency also said it would begin sampling and analyzing lead levels and would make the results public.

Snyder told MSNBC’s Morning Joe that he wants to bring in third-party experts to oversee water safety. He said state and local leaders were misled by career civil servants regarded as scientific experts on the subject.

“But as a practical matter, when you look at it today, and you look at their conclusions, I wouldn’t call them experts anymore,” he said.

Obama declares state of emergency over Flint’s water

President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Michigan over the weekend and ordered federal aid for state and local response efforts in the county where the city of Flint has been contending with lead-contaminated drinking water.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had asked the president to declare both an emergency and an expedited major disaster in Genesee County to protect the safety of Flint residents.

Obama is authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts there, the White House said in a statement.

The action is being taken to “lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in Genesee County,” it said.

Snyder sent the Michigan National Guard to distribute bottled water and other supplies in the area earlier this week.

A financially struggling city, Flint was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched its source of tap water from Detroit’s system to the nearby Flint River in April 2014 to save money.

Flint, which is about 60 miles northwest of Detroit, returned to using that city’s water in October after tests found elevated levels of lead in the water and in the blood of some children.

UPDATE:

Rev. Jesse Jackson said on Sunday that Flint, Michigan is a “disaster zone” and could be the next epicenter in the fight for economic and social equality as the city struggles through a crisis with lead-contaminated drinking water.

“We have been treated like we don’t matter because we are from Flint,” said Melissa Mays, a member of the Coalition for Clean Water during the rally. “It’s our job to stand up and say no, we’re done. We’re not going to put up with this anymore.”

The more corrosive water from the Flint River leached lead from the city pipes more than Detroit water did, leading to the current problems.

Last week, the Michigan attorney general said his office would investigate whether any laws were violated in Flint related to the crisis. His probe follows one launched earlier by the U.S. Attorney in Detroit.

Some Flint residents sued Snyder, other officials, Michigan and the city on Jan. 7 in Genesee County court and are seeking class action status covering all residents.

Other Flint residents late last year filed a federal lawsuit. Genesee County also has seen a spike of Legionnaires’ disease resulting in 10 deaths that may or may not be related to the water crisis, state officials previously said.

After ignoring situation, Michigan governor declares state of emergency in Flint over lead in drinking water

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5 over problems with lead in the city’s drinking water.

Also on yesterday, federal officials said they’re investigating the local public health emergency.

Snyder’s action follows emergency declarations by the city and Genesee County, which requested help from the state. Michigan’s declaration makes available state resources in cooperation with local response and recovery operations.

U.S. attorney’s spokeswoman Gina Balaya said in an email that the federal investigation is “an effort to address the concerns of Flint residents,” but she couldn’t say whether it is a criminal or civil investigation.

The city switched from Detroit’s water system to Flint River water in a cost-cutting move in 2014, while under state financial management. The move was intended to be a temporary step while a pipeline was built from Lake Huron.

Residents complained about the water’s taste, smell and appearance, and children were found to have elevated levels of lead due to the water supply. Exposure to lead can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in children.

The city returned to Detroit water in October.

Officials say the state will use its own resources during the emergency, but Snyder could request federal help if Michigan is unable to handle demands.

Last week, Snyder apologized and Michigan’s top environmental regulator resigned after a task force blamed problems on his agency. Administration officials have pledged to cooperate fully with any federal requests.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver welcomed the governor’s declaration, saying it’s what “Flint deserves.”

The state initially downplayed lead concerns, prompting a lawsuit by Flint residents accusing city and state officials of knowing about the problem but doing nothing about it. Ultimately the state had to commit $10.6 million to reconnect Flint to Detroit and to respond with filters, testing and other services.

The city’s request for a disaster declaration includes roughly $50 million in aid, most of which is taken up by $45 million to replace 15,000 lead service lines — “one of the most cost-intensive endeavors related to ameliorating water contaminants” in its system, according to the application. It also seeks $2 million in reimbursement costs for reconnecting to Detroit’s system.

FAILURE AT THE FAUCET: Costs, water pollution remain at closed Badger Army Ammunition Plant

Mary Jane Koch stopped drinking the water in her home 11 years ago, shortly after an industrial compound turned up in the well supplying drinking water to her home.

The source of the contamination: the now-closed Badger Army Ammunition Plant.

Badger was a military installation built in 1942 on more than 7,000 acres near Baraboo. The plant was owned and operated by the U.S. government to produce smokeless gunpowder for rockets, cannons and small arms used in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. It operated on and off for 33 years.

During its operation, the plant pumped excess chemicals and millions of gallons of wastewater into Lake Wisconsin and burned toxic substances in large pits on the site, leaving the soil, surface and groundwater contaminated with a dangerous stew of chemicals, including some known or likely to cause cancer.

Now, 400 monitoring wells dot the site, and the Army has spent $125 million cleaning up contaminated soil and water. While the land is being redeveloped for recreation, dairy research and tribal uses, the groundwater under the Badger site remains polluted.

The Army is working on a plan to install a water system for about 400 households to replace tainted groundwater as the source of drinking water in this scenic region about 30 miles northwest of Madison.

Long history of pollution

In 2004, Koch got a letter saying that concentrations of ethyl ether, a chemical used in production of smokeless gunpowder, had been detected in her well at 17 parts per million. The state groundwater enforcement standard is 1 part per million for ethyl ether, a little-studied chemical that can cause alcohol-like effects at high doses.

The Army delivered five-gallon jugs of water to her home the next day but discontinued the delivery two months later when tests showed no presence of ethyl ether.

To this day, Koch cooks with and drinks only bottled water at home. She does not trust the water from her well. Koch grew up near Badger and has seen the effects of the unchecked pollution firsthand. 

In 1961, when she was a teenager, Koch’s family bought a summer cottage — about a mile and a half north of her current home — across from the Badger plant on Lake Wisconsin.  She remembers the thick, sticky mud in the water.

“When we first moved in … we couldn’t swim out in front of the cottage,” she said. “We didn’t know what this muck was all about. I mean, it was like if you went down in it you were stuck.”

According to a 2006 article written by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, about 25 million gallons of wastewater per day was dumped into Gruber’s Grove Bay in Lake Wisconsin near the Koch cottage when Badger was in full production. That wastewater contained mercury and other metals. 

The Army eventually dredged Gruber’s Grove Bay in 2001 and again in 2006, pulling tens of thousands of pounds of copper, zinc and lead from the bay.

Tainted water, troubled mind

In 1977, Koch and her husband built a home north of the Prairie du Sac Dam on the Wisconsin River. They did not know about the extensive groundwater contamination from Badger. 

Koch read about the tainted water years later in the Sauk Prairie Star. It was 1990, and the Army reported dangerous chemicals had been detected in residential wells in a subdivision south of Badger near her home. The news brought her to tears.

Chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, probable human carcinogens, had been detected at levels that exceeded Wisconsin groundwater enforcement standards. The Army eventually replaced two wells in 1990 and one in 1996.

In 2004, the Kochs were notified by the Army that ethyl ether was detected in their well. She felt like her nightmare had begun all over again. Koch said at one public meeting held by the Army and the DNR about the groundwater cleanup at Badger, she posed the question: “Why were we ever allowed to build there if you guys knew about this?”

In addition, highly dangerous compounds including dinitrotoluene (DNT) and trichloroethylene (TCE) made their way into the groundwater.

Since well monitoring began at Badger in the early 1980s, varying levels of these chemicals have been detected in groundwater at the site and in private wells south and southeast of the site.

After years of clean up, environmental data produced for the Army in 2011 showed that levels of DNT, which can affect the central nervous system and blood; carbon tetrachloride, a probable human carcinogen; and TCE, a known carcinogen with a wide array of other harmful health effects, have diminished over time.

However, the latest environmental monitoring from November 2014 found that levels of all three contaminants continue to exceed Wisconsin groundwater enforcement standards in a number of wells on or near the Badger site.

Studies refute cancer concerns

Residents living near Badger have long been concerned about the cancer risks associated with exposure to contaminated groundwater used for drinking.

In response to those concerns, state health officials conducted a cancer rate review in 1990 and a follow up study in 1997. Both concluded that the rate of cancer in nearby neighborhoods was similar to other Wisconsin communities.

Koch is not reassured by these health assessments.

“The problem with some of the wells they’ve been testing is there will be three different chemicals that were found,” she said. “No one can give us an answer as to what kind of chemical cocktail that’s making.”

Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger asked Will Myers, the state DNR team leader for environmental remediation at Badger, whether residents should continue to be concerned about pollution from the site. The environmental nonprofit, based in Merrimac, has pushed for monitoring and remediation at Badger for years.

Myers responded in writing that “for both soil and groundwater at Badger, the concentrations are low, there is very limited interaction between compounds, and the standards are very conservative.”

But state epidemiologist Dr. Henry Anderson said there is uncertainty — and no health standards — regarding the cumulative effect of multiple chemicals in the groundwater.

Koch has known a number of families living near Badger that have been affected by cancer.  It is this anecdotal evidence that connects the dots for her.

Laura Olah, executive director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, also has asked regulators to set health advisory levels for products that result from the breakdown of the explosive compound DNT, 16 of which have been detected in the groundwater at Badger. Olah said some of the products can be more harmful than the original contaminant.

Olah is also concerned that additives such as 1,4-dioxane, a compound used to stabilize TCE, are not being monitored at the site. The DNR has said it does not monitor for the compound. The EPA found after a multi-year scientific review of the health risks that 1,4-dioxane “can cause cancer or increase the incidence of cancer when people are exposed to relatively low levels for extended periods of time.”

Clean water on the way?

Anderson said that given the concerns and uncertainties, state health officials believe the best course of action is to keep people from using water from residential wells near Badger.

The Army has proposed spending about $40 million to build a municipal drinking water system to serve some 400 nearby property owners and 150 undeveloped residential lots. The price tag includes the cost of operating the system for the first five years and 20 years of groundwater monitoring in and around Badger. Customers would pay for the operation after five years.

Town of Merrimac resident Gene Franks believes a new water system is the only way to guarantee residents’ drinking water will be safe.

“It seems to me to be a viable solution to having this gnawing doubt over the years that there might be some plume that might move into an area that no one ever expected,” Franks said. “This would give us that 100 percent assurance.”

Franks is co-founder of Citizens for Practical Water Solutions, which pushed for formation of the new system. The group’s other founder, Roger Heidenreich, said many residents support the project — but not all. Some whose private wells are not tainted do not want to pay for water from a public water system — especially one that could later need costly upgrades or repairs, Heidenreich said.

And although the Merrimac Town Board approved formation of the water district in May, the Army still must approve the funding, which would trigger another round of review and negotiation that could take up to a year.

Residents at a March meeting in Sauk City also expressed concern about the plan to reduce monitoring at Badger over the next 20 years, which would end in 2032 unless contaminants continue to be found.

In addition, the Army plans to stop extracting and treating groundwater at Badger in the next few years. In 2011, it reported removing just 18 pounds of contaminants after pumping and filtering millions of gallons of groundwater.

For Mary Jane Koch, the new water system offers some hope. But she said the notion that the groundwater at Badger is contaminated, and may be for years to come, will always be in the back of her mind. 

That tempers her joy.

About the Failure at the Faucet series

The story was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Center and UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Failure at the Faucet is part of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s ongoing Water Watch Wisconsin project, which examines state water quality and supply issues.  The series was produced for The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Center and students and faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The investigation included reviewing dozens of studies, interviewing many of the state’s foremost water quality scientists and scouring the state to find homeowners who cannot do something most of us take for granted — cup their hand under the kitchen tap and take a long, cool drink of water. The Confluence was supported by a grant managed by the Online News Association and funded by the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.

FAILURE AT THE FAUCET | Safe, clean drinking water eludes many Wisconsinites

In this place, hundreds of thousands of people face the specter of drinking water from wells that is unsafe, tainted by one or more contaminants such as arsenic or nitrate.

In this place, for some, even brushing their teeth or cooking a meal can give pause because of the risk of lead from aging water pipes. The dangers to children, often more susceptible to pollutants than adults, and even pets and livestock, cause nagging fear.

Surely, this place — on a planet where the United Nations estimates 783 million people lack access to safe drinking water — lies in a distant nation.

But this polluted water is right here. In many parts of Wisconsin. In a state whose very name evokes the image of lakes and rivers and clean, cool, abundant water.

Lynda Cochart’s water from her private well was so poisoned by salmonella, nitrate, E. coli and manure-borne viruses that one researcher compared the results from her Kewaunee County farm to contamination in a Third World country. She suspects the problem is related to the county’s proliferation of large livestock operations, although testing did not pinpoint the source.

“Realize that we can’t drink, brush our teeth, wash dishes, wash food; we can’t use our water,” Cochart wrote in a letter last year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, seeking intervention in the county’s drinking water problems.

“Our water is on our mind all the time. If drinking it doesn’t kill us, the stress of having it on our mind and worrying about it all the time will.”

Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents are at risk of consuming drinking water tainted with substances including lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, naturally occurring heavy metals and other contaminants, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has found.

The problem persists, and in some areas is worsening, because of flawed agricultural practices, development patterns that damage water quality, geologic deposits of harmful chemicals, porous karst and sand landscapes, lack of regulation of the private wells serving an estimated 1.7 million people, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality.

Studies show an increasing number of residents using private wells around the state are drinking unsafe levels of nitrate — most of it from fertilizer, manure or septic systems — which can be fatal to infants and has been linked to birth defects.

Tens of thousands of people living in homes in Milwaukee, Wausau and other cities with aging water pipes and fixtures may be exposed to lead, which can cause brain damage in children. Homes built before 1950 are likely to have lead pipes, according to the DNR. Those built before 1984 also could have lead in their fixtures or lead solder on pipes, the agency said.

The Center found that in many cases, residents are on their own when it comes to safeguarding their drinking water. Private well owners are not required to test their water, and only 16 percent do so annually, although 47 percent of private wells are estimated to be contaminated by one or more pollutants at levels above health standards. One-third of respondents to a 2008-09 state health survey said they had never tested their wells.

Even consumers of some municipal water should be wary. In 2009, after researchers found viruses in public water supplies, the state began requiring disinfection. In 2011, the Legislature rescinded the rule, with its sponsor, Rep. Erik Severson, R-Star Prairie, calling it “an unnecessary and financial bureaucratic burden.”

In 2012, researchers definitively linked the presence of the viruses in 14 Wisconsin municipal water systems to acute gastrointestinal illness. More than 73,000 people use water provided by 60 municipal water systems that do not disinfect, according to DNR figures.

Last month, Doug and Sherryl Jones, of Spring Green, and Dave Marshall, a former Department of Natural Resources researcher from Barneveld who studied aquatic organisms, were among 16 Wisconsin residents who petitioned the EPA to revoke Wisconsin’s authority to issue pollution discharge permits under the Clean Water Act if the DNR does not correct deficiencies.

The discharge permits are a key mechanism by which Wisconsin limits pollutants, including manure from large farms, that reach the sources of Wisconsin’s drinking water. Both the Joneses and Marshall cited unsafe levels of nitrates in drinking water wells in the Lower Wisconsin River Valley.

Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, the Madison law firm representing the residents, said Wisconsin lacks an adequate regulatory program to protect water, including what flows from residents’ taps.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick countered that the DNR “takes its responsibility to protect Wisconsin’s waters seriously and does enforce the Clean Water Act. We are working within the confines of current state and federal laws and rules to do just that.” He declined to make any DNR officials available to discuss the Center’s findings.

Environmentalists are not the only critics of Wisconsin’s approach to safeguarding water.

Last year, an administrative law judge accused the DNR of “massive regulatory failure” for failing to prevent widespread contamination in the private wells used by Kewaunee County residents living near large dairy farms.

Judge Jeffrey Boldt, while granting a large farm’s permit to expand its herd beyond 4,000 cows, ordered the DNR to take several steps, including requiring Kinnard Farms to conduct off-site well testing and cap the number of cows based on “limits that are necessary to protect groundwater and surface waters.”

As of October, the agency was refusing to comply with those two requirements, saying it lacked the legal authority to impose them.

In the absence of rigorous enforcement, the Center found, residents can begin safeguarding their water by using methods including having their private wells tested for contaminants common in their areas or using safer practices when it comes to using water from aging lead pipes. Filters and water conditioners also can remove some harmful elements from drinking water.

But environmental advocates say state and federal lawmakers and regulators must do more to ensure the safety of Wisconsin’s drinking water.

Residents “think the government is protecting their water,” Wright said. “It’s not.”

Problems are statewide

Over the past year, the Center examined the state of Wisconsin’s drinking water. Major findings include:

  • Lead, dangerous especially to children’s brain development, is a threat in a projected 6,000 homes with lead pipes on municipal water systems, according to EPA estimates. And as many as 16,920 of the state’s 940,000 rural households on private wells also could be exposed to unhealthy lead levels, most likely from plumbing, according to a study by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Officials from the EPA and DNR have publicly acknowledged current federal regulations fail to protect against dangerous levels of lead in water.
  • Nitrate exceeds safe levels in the private wells of an estimated 94,000 Wisconsin households, according to state estimates. Despite these dangers, the law carves out a regulatory loophole so that private well owners with nitrate levels that could kill infants cannot qualify for financial assistance to get their wells replaced — unless the wells are used to water livestock.
  • Pesticides, some of which are linked with health issues ranging from cancer to reproductive problems, are present in one-third of the state’s private wells tested, according to the state’s 2014 Groundwater Coordinating Council report to the state Legislature. Tests for the herbicide atrazine, for example, showed 440 of 5,500 wells tested had levels above the EPA’s health enforcement standard.
  • A 2013 Department of Health Services study of 3,868 private wells statewide showed 2.4 percent of them exceeded the safe drinking water standards for arsenic of 10 parts per billion. Applied to all of the state’s private wells — a method endorsed by the study’s lead author — that percentage means residents in some 22,560 homes may be consuming unsafe levels of arsenic, which has been linked to cancer, diabetes, lower IQ and other illnesses.
  • That same study, published in the Journal of Environmental Health, found an indicator of possible disease-causing organisms such as E. coli or viruses in 18 percent of the 3,868 private wells tested statewide between 2007 and 2010.
  • Wisconsin’s private wells have some of the highest levels in the United States of the heavy metal strontium, which is suspected of causing rickets and bone deformities in infants and children, according to the EPA. The naturally occurring contaminant, which is currently unregulated, was found by a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay researcher at unsafe levels in 73 out of 114, or 64 percent, of well water samples in Brown, Calumet and Outagamie counties, where the local geology has been linked to the presence of strontium.
  • Tests of municipal wells in 42 communities for radium, a naturally occurring contaminant linked to health problems including cancer, exceeded federal safety limits in 2006. As of June, two dozen communities continued to exceed the EPA’s maximum contaminant level for radium, which is found at higher levels the deeper communities drill down for water. Waukesha continues to find spikes in its water and has made a controversial, internationally watched bid to become the first community outside the Great Lakes watershed to draw its water from Lake Michigan.
  • Unsafe levels of molybdenum, a naturally occurring metal that can cause joint, gastrointestinal, liver and kidney problems, were found in 200 of 1,000 private wells tested in southeastern Wisconsin by the environmental group Clean Wisconsin in 2014. The organization found that the severity of contamination increased the closer wells were to sites with recycled coal ash from power plants. The DNR said the data are insufficient to link the contaminants to coal ash.

According to the petition filed with the EPA last month, “water quality issues permeate throughout Wisconsin and are not confined to a particular area of the state. Petitioners have arrived at a conclusion that the status of the state’s water quality warrants wide-sweeping change.”

Exposure to contaminants large

The number of people exposed to contaminated tap water is hard to come by because most studies involve a single pollutant or region where drinking water is threatened. But when those pollutants and affected regions are looked at in total, the sum of people affected escalates.

For example, statewide sampling of 3,868 private wells by state public health researchers found 47 percent of the tested wells had one or more contaminants at levels exceeding health-based water quality standards.

Lynda Knobeloch, the lead author of the paper and who is now retired from her position as a researcher with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said she was surprised at the percentage of contaminated wells detected in the study. Researchers tested for coliform bacteria, fluoride, nitrate and a panel of 13 metals. The researchers did not test for other contaminants, including pesticides, believed to be in thousands of wells.

“Since an estimated 940,000 Wisconsin households, including more than 300,000 children, drink water from a private well, the finding that nearly half of the wells are unsafe is a major public health concern,” the researchers wrote in their study, published in 2013.

Municipal water systems fare much better than private wells, partly because they are heavily regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and must test for a broad range of contaminants.

In 2014, according to the DNR’s annual report on public drinking water systems, 95.5 percent, or 10,904 systems out of 11,420, met all health-based standards for regulated contaminants.

Ken Bradbury, director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, said the aquifers from which most municipalities and all private well owners draw their drinking water are by and large a clean and plentiful source of water. But he added a caveat.

“We have this wonderful resource we take for granted,” Bradbury said. “And we don’t respect it enough.”

Natural threats made worse by man

Among the culprits in Wisconsin’s drinking water are natural contaminants such as arsenic and radium. And although they are naturally occurring, their presence in drinking water is often made worse by the drawdown of aquifers that comes with sprawling population growth and insufficient oversight of water use.

About 10 years ago, Bradley Burmeister’s family in Outagamie County had its private well tested for arsenic as part of a high school class project.

The results were shocking: Arsenic levels were 165 times higher than the federal health standard. Ever since, the Burmeisters have been buying bottled water by the case from the grocery store.

Tests by the DNR in the 1990s of nearly 2,000 private wells in northeastern Wisconsin showed nearly 20 percent of them exceeded the health standards for arsenic.

Some wells that once tested negative for arsenic may now be tainted because of drawdown, according to John Luczaj, a groundwater expert at UW-Green Bay.

Patrick Laughrin, who lives in the Calumet County community of Hilbert, said arsenic began showing up in his well after a large dairy operation nearby drilled high-capacity wells.

Another natural contaminant, radium, has begun to show up in the water systems of communities such as Sussex in Waukesha County, which is part of eastern Wisconsin’s “radium belt.” The radioactive substance is more prevalent the deeper communities drill into a depleted aquifer.

Rules improve water quality

Not all the news is bad.

The federal Clean Water Act was passed 40 years ago, and Wisconsin’s waters — especially its lakes and rivers — saw tremendous improvements in quality as point sources of pollution coming from industries were cleaned up.

According to the DNR, since the passage of the federal law, Fox River paper mills cut pollution from 425,000 to 22,000 pounds of solids a day. Milwaukee went from an estimated 60 combined sewer overflows a year to 2.5. Phosphorus pollution from point sources such as factories and municipalities has been cut by 67 percent since 1994, according to the agency.

Jill Jonas, head of the DNR’s Drinking and Groundwater program, called Wisconsin’s efforts to ensure clean drinking water for the state a “tremendous success story.”

One hundred years ago, she noted, Wisconsin’s State Board of Health recorded 105 cases of waterborne typhoid fever for every 100,000 people. Today, such illnesses are rare, with about 400 cases nationwide each year — and more than two-thirds of them are acquired during international travel.

Things also are looking up for neighbors of the defunct Badger Army Ammunition Plant after years of agitating by citizens for clean water. Residents there have been drinking bottled water because of private wells contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals and other contaminants, byproducts of manufacturing explosives for World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Town of Merrimac resident Gene Franks described living with “gnawing doubt” about the safety of his drinking water. But soon Franks’ home will be among the nearly 400 households in this scenic area south of Baraboo to get a municipal supply of water  — courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Some regulation lax, full of loopholes

Despite the sometimes dramatic improvements in overall water quality, activists contend the state has gone backwards in recent years when it comes to enforcement of clean-water laws.

In 2011, the EPA identified 75 failings in the DNR’s enforcement of the state’s wastewater pollution permit program. Last month, after the residents’ petition was filed, the state agency announced it is working on two rule packages that will address 21 of the issues. The agency said it has resolved 36 of the issues and is working on more rule changes that will solve the 18 remaining problems.

“Our state has historically been, and continues to be, a leader in many water-related areas,” DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said in a news release.

But the residents’ petition said the agency’s actions to resolve deficiencies represent a “lack of meaningful response.” The petition also charged that the agency’s authority and staff have been whittled away, citing the loss of 600 positions in the past 20 years.

The petitioners claim Wisconsin now lacks the staff to adequately inspect and manage permits for wastewater sources, including large farms, municipalities and industries. EPA estimates show two-thirds of such facilities in Wisconsin are operating with expired waste discharge permits — the third worst rate in the nation.

Recent reorganization at the agency by Gov. Scott Walker “raises even more doubt” about its ability to carry out its duties under the Clean Water Act, according to the petition. One of those changes is eliminating a separate water division and consolidating both water and air pollution under a Business Support and External Services Division.

“The governor and state Legislature have starved the DNR’s power and robbed the agency’s experienced staff of professional autonomy to make informed decisions,” Wright said in a statement, adding, “Without effective government, we are compounding what our children and grandchildren will face in a world increasingly short of drinking water.”

Portions of the series were produced in collaboration with journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the journalism school. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

FAILURE AT THE FAUCET: Safeguarding your drinking water: What you can do

Wisconsin residents can take a number of steps to make sure their drinking water is safe. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you live in one of the 940,000 households in Wisconsin that rely on a private well, have your water tested or test it yourself. The state Department of Natural Resources recommends getting your well tested once a year for coliform bacteria and any time you notice a change in how your water looks, smells or tastes. Check with your county health department on what contaminants may be found in your area and for which you might also want to test.
  • You can get more information on testing from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, including details on how to obtain testing kits and the costs of various tests. The test for coliform bacteria, for example, costs $29, as do the tests for lead and nitrate.
  • For those using municipal water, get the consumer confidence report from your local water utility. Or you can access the reports on the DNR’s database of public water systems. Also, find out if your utility disinfects for viruses or uses corrosion control to help keep lead out of pipes.
  • If your home was built before 1984, consider having it assessed for lead in the water. While pre-1950 homes often have lead service pipes, some homes built before 1984 may have lead solder on the pipes or fixtures that contain lead. Consult the DNR website for safer ways to use water that may contain lead.
  • Consider a filter for your water. But make sure that the filter you choose is effective for removing the specific contaminants that are in your water. The University of Wisconsin-Extension website has advice on which to choose.

— Ron Seely

About the Failure at the Faucet series

Failure at the Faucet is part of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s ongoing Water Watch Wisconsin project, which examines state water quality and supply issues.

The series was produced for The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Center and students and faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The investigation included reviewing dozens of studies, interviewing many of the state’s foremost water quality scientists and scouring the state to find homeowners who cannot do something most of us take for granted — cup their hand under the kitchen tap and take a long, cool drink of water.

The Confluence was supported by a grant managed by the Online News Association and funded by the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.

Katy Culver, assistant professor in the journalism school, coordinated The Confluence. Ron Seely, a Center editor and reporter, was project editor.

The investigative reporting class that participated in Failure at the Faucet was taught by Deborah Blum, a former UW-Madison journalism professor and now director of the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Students in the class were Rachael Lallensack, Gabrielle Menard, Tierney King, Silke Schmidt, Kathi Matthews-Risley, Jane Roberts, Mary Kate McCoy, Elise Bayer and Fern Schultz.

 

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