Tag Archives: groundwater

Study shows 2 dangerous chemicals released at Iowa plant

A federally mandated study has concluded that Pella Corp. inadvertently released two dangerous chemicals into the ground at its plant in Pella, Iowa.

The study said pentachlorophenol and dioxin have reached the groundwater.

Only those two chemicals were found at higher than acceptable levels, according to the Des Moines Register.

Pella officials said the contaminants do not threaten the city’s drinking water, which comes from the Des Moines River and the Jordan aquifer.

“There’s very limited exposure to human health for this,” Pella engineering manager Jim Nieboer said. “And really, it’s limited to people who work in our buildings and grounds crew who may be digging in our soil periodically planting flowers and tulips.”

Pella used pentachlorophenol to treat wood, and was stored in above-ground tanks and drums. Although the chemical was widely barred in the 1980s, it is still used as a preservative for telephone poles and railroad ties. Dioxins, a byproduct of pentachlorophenol manufacturing, are described by the World Health Organization as “highly toxic.”

The study was a result of a 2010 settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, which required the company to test for 30 different possible sources of contamination. Nieboer said Pella will wait for guidance from the EPA on whether Pella must remove the chemicals from the ground.

“It’s primarily underneath our manufacturing buildings,” Nieboer said. “There are ways we can intercept and remove groundwater. Given the clay soils in Iowa, it could be a very long-term process of removal and treatment.”

Pella spokeswoman Heidi Farmer said the company does not know of any employees who became ill from the soil, but still continue to monitor and test the facility to ensure the health and safety of Pella’s team members.

EPA finalizing plans to supply water in Kewaunee

The federal Environmental Protection Agency says it’s finalizing a plan to supply water to some residents of Kewaunee County of northeastern Wisconsin, where manure from large dairy farms is being blamed for contaminated wells.

Robert Kaplan, acting regional administrator for the EPA, told residents at a meeting organized by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin this past week that his agency will announce a plan within the next month to supply residents who have tainted wells. This is according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel carried by the AP.

Farming practices have been a source of friction in many areas of Wisconsin.

The issue has been especially visible in Kewaunee County, which has longstanding groundwater problems, a large cattle population, and fractured bedrock that allows manure, waste from septic systems and other pollutants to trickle more quickly into aquifers.

In March, six environmental groups called on the EPA to step in and clean up unsafe drinking water in Kewaunee County.

“It is unacceptable that more than one-third of the private drinking water wells in Kewaunee County are unsafe — contaminated with bacteria, nitrates and other pollutants,” Elizabeth Wheeler, senior staff attorney with Clean Wisconsin, said at the time.

Clean Wisconsin, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Midwest Environmental Defense Center, Kewaunee Cares, Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin and Environmental Integrity Project wrote to the EPA and requested federal support for clean, safe drinking water.

Also, in October 2014, the groups petitioned the EPA, asking for intervention under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The EPA, in a letter sent to the agency’s Chicago office, was asked to:

  • Immediately provide Kewaunee County residents with clean water.
  • Expedite test results of well water contamination.
  • Issue emergency rule changes to ensure the DNR has authority to protect water.
  • Provide more research and groundwater monitoring on sources of pollution.

The groups also asked the EPA to monitor closely the DNR’s efforts to develop a plan to implement recommendations.

 

 

Powerful dairy lobbyists are behind fouling of state’s water supply

The Dairy Business Association, which was created in 1999 and is based in Green Bay, is run by agri-business and large dairy interests that support looser agriculture and environmental regulations and enforcement. The group is backed by dozens of wealthy special interest sponsors that have contributed more than $2.1 million to statewide and legislative candidates, including more than $710,000 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker in recent years.

Those sponsors include big-name law firms, banking, energy, and large agri-business interests, like Foley and Lardner, Alliant Energy, American Foods Group, BMO Harris Bank, Cargill, Merck, and Monsanto.

The DBA’s backers give it considerable political clout that helps it move a lobbying agenda to deregulate agri-business. The DBA’s achievements include legislative bills and state rules to loosen land use, high-capacity well, wetland, groundwater protection, and factory farm regulations and enforcement. Factory farms are formally called concentrated animal feeding operations — informally known as CAFOs — and house several hundred or thousands of cows, hogs, chickens and turkeys.

In a February 2016 opinion piece about controversial legislation to ease state oversight of high-capacity wells, which did not pass, DBA lobbyist John Holevoet wrote: “Our ready access to fresh water gives Wisconsin a competitive advantage in attracting new farms and other businesses that rely on water. We should be promoting this advantage, not regulating it out of existence.”

The DBA, which spent $179,045 on lobbying in 2015, employs five lobbyists, including Bill McCoshen, a prominent State Capitol lobbyist who was chief of staff to former longtime GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson. In the last full 2013-14 legislative session, the DBA spent nearly $304,000 on lobbying state policymakers.

In addition to lobbying on proposed state policy and spending, media reports as far back as 2010 show the DBA has met directly with the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to change the way the agencies site, permit and regulate factory farms. Such ready access by a large corporate interest has raised questions about the DNR’s independence from both inside and outside the agency. “This particular lobbying group has been able to elbow its way into the higher levels of the regulatory agency. That kind of access is unprecedented,” Jamie Saul, a former Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney, said in a March 2010 media report.

Earlier this summer, the DBA met with the DNR after Walker’s office gave the DBA and other farm industry groups proposed rules drawn up by the agency to restrict manure spreading by factory farms. Shortly after its meeting with the DBA, the DNR reduced the scope of the proposed rules, which govern how and where manure could be spread. Walker then approved the looser rules, which are scheduled for consideration by the DNR Board at its Aug. 3 meeting.

The families of seven of the DBA’s 10-member board of directors own factory farms, including the group’s president, Gordon Speirs, owner of Shiloh Dairy in Brillion. Early last month, heavy rains washed thousands of gallons of manure from Shiloh Dairy into Plum Creek. The creek runs into the Fox River in northern Calumet County. The DNR said Shiloh Dairy may face enforcement action from the manure runoff. Both Calumet and Kewaunee counties have a large number of factory farms. Nearly a third of wells tested in Kewaunee County last year were so contaminated that the water isn’t safe to drink.

The DBA’s lobbying activities for agri-business are just one part of its political arsenal. The group operates a conduit, which delivered $63,340 in large individual contributions to legislative and statewide candidates between January 2005 and December 2015. Some of the campaign cash came from the group’s sponsors as well as other factory farm owners, and agri-business and construction interests. Conduits are legal check-bundling operations often run by lobbyists and special interest groups that collect contributions from individuals, bundle them together and deliver one large check to a candidate.

The DBA’s conduit contributions supported Democratic and GOP legislative and statewide candidates, but substantially more went to Republicans – about $48,300 versus about $15,000. The top recipients of DBA conduit contributions were Republican Gov. Scott Walker, $8,740; former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, $3,450; and former GOP state representative and lieutenant governor candidate Brett Davis, $3,300.

The top individual contributors through the DBA conduit were Dean Doornink, of Baldwin, owner of Jon-De-Farm, $4,000; John Vrieze, of the Town of Emerald, owner of Emerald Dairy, $3,800; and Mark Mashlan, of Kaukauna, an executive with Fox Structures, $2,875.

The group’s annual conventions have drawn heavy hitters from both parties. Walker and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos addressed the DBA’s most recent 2016 annual convention, and Doyle spoke at its 2008 state meeting.

In addition to the individual contributions through the group’s conduit, the DBA also contributed $35,900 in three contributions in 2014 to the Republican Governors Association’s (RGA) 527 group. The RGA spends several millions of dollars each year to support GOP candidates for governor across the country. In 2014, the RGA’s state political action committee spent nearly $4 million on mostly negative broadcast ads to support Walker’s successful reelection. 527 groups are tax-exempt political nonprofit groups that are named after the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code that governs them. These organizations, which are run by powerful business and other special interests, can accept and spend unlimited amounts of unregulated contributions on electioneering activities.

Walker moves to weaken manure rules after dairy complaints

Defying environmentalists worried about groundwater contamination, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has scaled back proposed rules regulating factory farms’ manure spreading amid complaints from the dairy industry.

The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters said Walker’s move diminishes more than a year’s worth of work by a coalition of citizens, government officials and the DNR through the Groundwater Collaboration Working Group to address groundwater pollution in the state.

The state Department of Natural Resources last month completed scope statements to update manure spreading regulations for factory farms statewide, with special restrictions for sensitive areas and new rules on airborne spraying. As per state law, the agency submitted the statements to Gov. Scott Walker’s office for approval.

Walker’s office then shared them with the Dairy Business Association, which expressed concerns about the plan.

So in mid-July, the agency submitted a more limited scope statement to Walker. And the  governor approved it the same day.

The new statement doesn’t include revisions on airborne spraying and doesn’t bring rules in line with new state and federal regulations.

This new information was revealed by the Wisconsin State Journal just days before a DNR board meeting where the rules are to be discussed.

The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters said in a news release that citizens from across the state — some of whom are directly impacted by manure-contaminated drinking water, lakes, and rivers — plan to attend the meeting to make sure the NRB knows the importance of developing strong water protections.

“This move makes it abundantly clear Gov. Walker puts very little value on the health and safety of Wisconsinites,” Kerry Schumann, executive director of WLCV, stated in a news release. “Instead, he seems to favor business interests that refuse to make common sense changes to drinking water regulations.”

The group’s final report was initiated by a petition filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.

At the public NRB meeting tomorrow in Ashland, WLCV will deliver about 2,000 letters from citizens on the issue.

“The NRB has now become the last line of defense in the battle for meaningful change that will protect Wisconsin’s most precious resource,” Schumann said.

The league said in some areas of the state, more than 30 percent of private wells are polluted with nitrates, bacteria, endocrine disruptors and other dangerous substances.

 

Dane County court rules against DNR in CAFO case

The latest development in Kewaunee County residents’ drive to protect drinking water from agricultural pollutants confirms the duty of Wisconsin DNR to require monitoring for groundwater pollution.

In October 2015, Clean Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates filed suit after DNR decided to ignore an administrative law judge order to require monitoring and an animal unit cap in a Kewaunee County Confined Animal Feeding Operation permit.

Late last week, Dane County Circuit Court ruled that DNR’s actions were illegal and that the agency overstepped its authority by ignoring the ALJ order.

In the case of Kinnard Farms, Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey Boldt ordered groundwater quality monitoring, a limit on the number of animals at the facility and other conditions on the facility’s wastewater permit to address widespread concern about groundwater contamination in late 2014.

Ten months later, DNR ignored that decision and stripped these sensible and necessary groundwater protection conditions from the permit, according to a news release from Clean Wisconsin.

Dane County Judge Markson wrote: “The laws that provide structure and predictability to our administrative process do not allow an agency to change its mind on a whim or for political purposes. The people of Wisconsin reasonably expect consistency, uniformity, and predictability from their administrative agencies and from the Department of Justice .…DNR had no authority to reverse (its own final) decision. Its attempt to do so is without any basis in law, and it is void.”

Responding, Elizabeth Wheeler, a staff attorney with Clean Wisconsin, said, “This ruling reinforces that DNR has an absolute duty to protect groundwater. The conditions in this permit are reasonable and common-sense protections in an area that is riddled with widespread drinking water contamination.”

She continued, “It is a fundamental duty of DNR to ensure that Wisconsin residents have a safe, reliable, and clean source of drinking water. The people of Kewaunee County don’t have that right now, and if DNR can’t require monitoring or other limits in permits, it will be impossible to locate the source of the contaminants, much less clean up the mess.”

Act 21 at issue

One of the issues in the case was to what degree 2011 Act 21 limits DNR’s authority.

Clean Wisconsin said industrial representatives have been trying to use Act 21 as a way to prevent DNR from requiring sensible permit conditions to limit pollution.

This law also is the basis for a recent opinion for Attorney General Brad Schimel that essentially stripped DNR of its authority to regulate pumping from high capacity wells, which is drying up rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands in some parts of Wisconsin.

“We are pleased that courts are rejecting the claim that DNR’s hands are tied by 2011 Act 21, and we hope this is the beginning of many court decisions that restore one of the most critical functions we rely on our DNR for: protection of our water,” Wheeler said.

The decision follows the release of 65 DNR-facilitated workgroup recommendations for addressing groundwater contamination in Kewaunee County, including increased CAFO audits by DNR and revised regulations for landspreading manure in sensitive areas.

DNR concedes it can’t monitor wells to protect state’s water

In a move that environmental advocates say leaves Wisconsin’s water unprotected, Department of Natural Resources officials said they won’t consider the cumulative effect of high-capacity wells in permit decisions.

The DNR had been considering whether a well combined with other wells around it would harm the state’s waters. But Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, issued a legal opinion last month saying state law doesn’t give the DNR authority to consider wells’ cumulative effects.

The agency quietly posted a frequently asked questions page on its website Friday saying that it will abide by Schimel’s opinion. DNR spokesman James Dick issued a statement saying the agency has traditionally followed all formal attorney general opinions.

Schimel’s opinion came after an Appleton judge ruled last fall that environmental officials can’t impose groundwater monitoring requirements as a condition for high-capacity well permits.

Outagamie County Judge Mark McGinnis ruled from the bench that the state lacks the explicit authority to impose such requirements, and a Republican-backed 2011 state law eliminated the agency’s broad authority to create such requirements.

Business groups hailed the decision, saying it validates the law and prevents regulatory overreach.

“(The ruling) shows that the days of regulating by bureaucratic fiat are over,” Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s chamber of commerce, said in a press statement.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, said the decision set a terrible precedent and would prohibit the DNR from monitoring high-capacity wells’ impact on Wisconsin waters.

“Monitoring is a really common sense tool,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney for Clean Wisconsin. “If they’re not able to do that, there’s no accountability there.”

The extent of the DNR’s authority to regulate high-capacity wells, which the agency defines as a well that can that pump at least 70 gallons per minute, has been a hot-button issue in Wisconsin for years as factory farms sink more of them to supply water for their herds and other farmers look for large-scale ways to irrigate crops.

Conservationists fear the wells have been depleting groundwater, lakes and streams, particularly in the state’s central sands region. According to the DNR, more than 2,000 high-capacity wells currently operate in that area.

A state appeals court ruled in 2010 that the DNR has broad authority to consider how high-capacity wells might harm the state’s waters. Republican lawmakers reacted by passing a law the following year that prohibits state agencies from imposing any permit conditions that aren’t expressly laid out in state statute. Two months after Gov. Scott Walker signed the law, the state Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling saying the DNR has general authority. The high court didn’t consider the new law in its deliberations.

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GOP puts business, not science, in control of state’s water

Wisconsin’s expert environmental officials lack broad authority to regulate high-capacity wells, Attorney General Brad Schimel said this week in a formal opinion.

Schimel said, in effect, that business interests must trump any negative impacts on the state’s water supply in making decisions about high-capacity wells.

The attorney general’s opinion will dramatically reduce the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to oversee high-capacity wells, putting the state’s groundwater, lakes and streams at risk, conservationists predicted.

“It’s bad,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, senior attorney for Clean Wisconsin, which works to protect the state’s air and water. “It’s a huge step backward for groundwater protection compared to what we have now.”

The GOP and environmentalists have been quarreling for years over how much power the DNR has over high-capacity wells. The issue has grown more intense as more factory farms sink high-capacity wells to hydrate their herds and other farmers search for large-scale irrigation methods. Conservationists say the wells are depleting groundwater, lakes and streams, particularly in the state’s central sands region.

According to the DNR’s website, the agency currently reviews each high-capacity well application to see if the well, combined with other wells in that area, will adversely affect the state’s waters. If the agency determines the wells’ cumulative impact would be harmful, it can impose conditions on the well or deny the application.

A state appeals court ruled in 2010 that the DNR could take that approach, finding the agency has broad authority to regulate high-capacity wells and impose permit conditions. That decision prompted Republican legislators to pass a law in 2011 prohibiting agencies from imposing permit conditions that aren’t spelled out in statute.

The state Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling later that same year, finding the DNR has general authority to police high-capacity wells. The high court didn’t consider the new law, because it didn’t become final until after oral arguments were complete.

Assembly Republicans have complained the DNR’s approach is too burdensome for businesses and has resulted in a backlog of applications. Looking to clear the path for applicants, they asked Schimel for a formal opinion in February on whether anything grants the DNR authority to go beyond its statutory powers.

Schimel, a Republican, wrote the responsibility for protecting the state’s waters lies with the Legislature, not the DNR. The Supreme Court didn’t consider the new law because it took effect after the justices handed down their decision, he said. Therefore, the new law takes precedence.

That means the DNR can’t impose well-monitoring conditions or consider the cumulative impact wells are having on an area’s water levels, the attorney general said.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who controls the DNR, is notorious for what environmentalists call his attacks on the state’s natural resources. He invariably prioritizes the needs of large corporations over conservation and environmental damage.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, issued a statement calling Schimel’s opinion “a victory for the people of Wisconsin.”

Louis Weisberg contributed to this report.

 

Radioactive material found in groundwater under nuclear power plant

An apparent overflow at a nuclear power plant north of New York City spilled highly radioactive water into an underground monitoring well.

Officials at the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, 40 miles north of Manhattan, reported that water contaminated by tritium leaked into the groundwater under the facility. The contamination has remained contained to the site, said Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who ordered the state’s environmental conservation and health departments to investigate.

“Our first concern is for the health and safety of the residents close to the facility and ensuring the groundwater leak does not pose a threat,” Cuomo said Saturday in a statement.

The leak occurred after a drain overflowed during a maintenance exercise while workers were transferring water, which has high levels of radioactive contamination, said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Normally, a sump pump would take the water and filter it into another treatment system, but the pump apparently was out of service, Sheehan said. After the drain overflowed, the water seeped out of the building into the groundwater.

It was unclear how much water spilled, but samples showed the water had a radioactivity level of more than 8 million picocuries per liter, a 65,000 percent increase from the average at the plant, Cuomo said. The levels are the highest regulators have seen at Indian Point, and the normal number is about 12,300 picocuries per liter, Cuomo said.

Contaminated groundwater would likely slowly make its way to the Hudson River, Sheehan said, but research has shown that water usually ends up in the middle of the river and is so diluted that the levels of radioactivity are nearly undetectable.

A spokesman for Entergy Corp., the New Orleans-based company that operates Indian Point, said the overflow was “likely the cause of the elevated tritium levels.”

“Tritium in the ground is not in accordance with our standards, but I think people should keep in mind there’s no health or safety consequences,” spokesman Jerry Nappi said. “There is no impact on drinking water on or off site.”

> There has been a history of groundwater contamination at Indian Point.

There has been a history of groundwater contamination at Indian Point. A federal oversight agency issued a report after about 100,000 gallons of tritium-tainted water entered the groundwater supply in 2009, and elevated levels of tritium also were found in two monitoring wells at the plant in 2014. Officials said then the contamination likely stemmed from an earlier maintenance shutdown.

An Associated Press investigation in 2009 showed three-quarters of America’s 65 nuclear plant sites have leaked tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that poses the greatest risk of causing cancer when it ends up in drinking water. 

Sinking land in California costing billions of dollars

A canal that delivers vital water supplies from Northern California to Southern California is sinking in places. So are stretches of a riverbed undergoing historic restoration. On farms, well casings pop up like mushrooms as the ground around them drops.

Four years of drought and heavy reliance on pumping of groundwater have made the land sink faster than ever up and down the Central Valley, requiring repairs to infrastructure that experts say are costing billions of dollars.

This slow-motion land subsidence – more than one foot a year in some places – is not expected to stop anytime soon, experts say, nor will the expensive repairs.

“It’s shocking how a huge area is affected, but how little you can tell with your eye,” said James Borchers, a hydro-geologist, who studies subsidence and says careful monitoring is necessary to detect and address sinking before it can do major damage to costly infrastructure such as bridges and pipelines.

Land subsidence is largely the result of pumping water from the ground. As aquifers are depleted, the ground sags.

The most severe examples today are in San Joaquin Valley, where the U.S. Geological Survey in 1975 said half of the land is prone to sinking. USGS researchers later called it one of the “single largest alterations of the land surface attributed to humankind.”

A sparse mountain snowpack in California’s driest four-year span on record has forced farmers in the Central Valley, the nation’s most productive agricultural region, to rely on groundwater to irrigate their crops.

Drought has spawned a well-drilling boom with some tapping ancient aquifers 3,000 feet down.

In wet years, groundwater provides about 40 percent of water used in California, but in times of drought, groundwater can amount to 65 percent of the state’s water supply.

Decades of over-pumping have destroyed thousands of well casings and buckled canal linings. To keep water flowing through low spots, irrigation districts raise the sides of sagging canals so they can increase the water level and maintain a gravitational flow.

As a result, at least one bridge now sits below the waterline. Chris White, general manager of the Central California Irrigation District in Los Banos, said replacing it is expected to cost $2.5 million. Rebuilding another canal recently cost $4.5 million.

Putting a grand total on damage from subsidence in California is tricky because irrigation districts don’t often single out repairs required by subsidence from general upkeep, said Borchers, who estimates long-term costs as being “probably in the billions.”

Subsidence has been a problem for decades, and it’s accelerating. Last year near Corcoran, the land sank 13 inches in eight months, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory found by comparing images collected over time from satellites and airplanes.

Parts of the California Aqueduct, a massive canal that delivers water 400 miles to Southern California, also sank by nearly 13 inches, the NASA research shows.

This has cost the state of California “tens of millions of dollars” in repairs to the aqueduct in the last 40 years, and officials expect to spend that much in the future, said Ted Thomas, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Water Resources.

California became the last state in the West to regulate groundwater when Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed legislation ending a Gold Rush-era policy that generally let property owners take as much as they wanted. But local agencies have until 2040 to put groundwater management plans into effect.

Farmers and irrigation districts are not the only ones taking note of sinking land. Spokesman Greg Snapper said Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has not sustained any broken natural gas pipelines from sinking land in the Central Valley, but it monitors the lines and this year started using NASA’s satellite research as part of that effort.

A 60-mile stretch of California’s High Speed Rail track, designed to whisk passengers through the Central Valley in excess of 200 mph, will be built on a bed of rocks. This design is more forgiving and easier to maintain and repair if the land sinks than other stretches built on highway-like slabs, said Frank Vacca, the rail authority’s chief program manager.

Sinking land has stopped work on part of a historic project to return water flows to an irrigation-depleted section of the San Joaquin River. Before construction of a passageway for fish can begin, officials need to assess how fast the land will sink in the future, said Alicia Forsythe of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

With a wet El Nino winter forecast, geologists also worry that subsidence in a flood control channel elsewhere on the river may cause water to pool, prompting flooding rather than flow toward the sea.

“We haven’t had to use it for a while,” said Michelle Sneed, a USGS subsidence researcher. “We’ll see how that’s going to perform this year, if it’s called upon.”

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.