Tag Archives: toxic

‘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

 

If Samsung isn’t recycling Galaxy Note 7 phones, will they be dumped?

Samsung’s lack of transparency on the disposal of Galaxy Note 7 leaves tons of precious minerals at risk of being discarded into the environment.

According to calculations by Oeko-Institut, a research and consultancy institution based in Germany, 4.3 million smartphones contain more than 20 metric tonnes of Cobalt, approximately more than one ton of tungsten, one ton of silver, 100 kilograms of gold and between 20 and 60 kilograms of palladium.

These materials could be recovered but would instead end up harming the environment if Samsung doesn’t repurpose or reuse these precious minerals.

Samsung has yet to make an official statement fully explaining the causes of the fault, despite a global recall of the Galaxy Note 7 and offering replacements. It has said that it will not recycle the phones and has still not offered any clarity on what it will do with the returned phones.

“Samsung now has an opportunity to set an example to the industry: will it recover and reuse the precious metals and other valuable materials in these 4.3 million devices and avoid an environmental disaster or will it simply dump them?” said Jude Lee, Senior IT Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “We are launching a global petition challenging Samsung to not dump the phones and instead take this chance to totally rethink how it designs and produces its products.”

Millions of phones were recalled worldwide after a number of high profile cases of exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices.  In April 2016, Samsung expected to sell 14 million  Galaxy Note 7 devices within the first two months since its official launch. Samsung has currently produced 4.3 million devices and sold 1.8 million in more than 10 countries including South Korea, USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, and China.

In the USA — the country with the highest amount of phones sold with a total of 1 million — Samsung mentioned that their existing mobile takeback program does not apply to the Galaxy Note 7, but has not stated how they will deal with the phones, or whether the phones will go through recycling or smelting programs.

The Galaxy Note 7 incident reflects the disposable economic model of many smartphone manufacturers and is having a negative impact on the brand’s reputation. Dumping millions of phones also raises the issue of Samsung’s transparency and claims to support a ‘circular economy’, and of the responsibility associated with resource efficiency.

In 1995, following a defect in their newly produced Anycall phones, Samsung disposed of 150,000 phones and set them alight. The Korean company might do the same to regain consumer trust, but Greenpeace urges Samsung to step up and use this crisis as an opportunity to adopt a more forward-thinking approach.

“This incident shows how fragile and wasteful our current system of production is – a system that hasn’t changed since the industrial revolution. Samsung has an opportunity to rethink its production model – one that would improve recovery of precious metals and rare earth minerals, to design products that can be more easily repaired, recycled or reused,” said Lee.

In August, Greenpeace East Asia released results of a consumer survey which found that many people believed that phone manufacturers should be responsible for providing people with the means to recycle their phones. Over half of respondents across the countries surveyed agree that manufacturers are releasing too many new models every year.

Greenpeace is calling on Samsung to not dump or burn the devices and minimise the environmental impact by finding alternative ways to reuse the resources. It must also be transparent and publish its plan on how it intends to deal with dismantling and disposing these phones.

Warm ocean ‘blob’ facilitated vast toxic algae bloom

A new study finds that unusually warm Pacific Ocean temperatures helped cause a massive bloom of toxic algae that closed lucrative fisheries from California to British Columbia and disrupted marine life from seabirds to sea lions.

Scientists linked the large patch of warm ocean water, nicknamed the “blob,” to the vast ribbon of toxic algae that flourished in 2015 and produced record-breaking levels of a neurotoxin that is harmful to people, fish and marine life.

The outbreak of the toxin domoic acid, the largest ever recorded on the West Coast, closed razor clam seasons in Washington and Oregon and delayed lucrative Dungeness crab fisheries along the coast. High levels were also detected in many stranded marine mammals.

“We’re not surprised now having looked at the data, but our study is the first to demonstrate that linkage,” said Ryan McCabe, lead author and a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean. “It’s the first question that everyone was asking.”

McCabe and his co-authors explain how the toxic algae bloom thrived in their study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Seasonal algae blooms are common each year along the West Coast, but most are not toxic. The scientists found that the algae bloom was dominated by a single species called “Pseudo-nitzschia australis” that is highly toxic.

The algae survived and took advantage of warm, nutrient-poor conditions set up by the patch of water that was warmer at the surface than normal.

Coastal upwelling last spring — a seasonal event that brings nutrient-rich, cooler waters up from the deep ocean — provided nutrients for the algae to bloom into a large population fairly quickly at sea. Finally, a series of late spring storms delivered the bloom to the coast.

“While temperature isn’t everything, it’s serving as a decent proxy,” said McCabe. “We think there’s a linkage between toxic events along our coast and climate variability indices.”

The blob was a one-time event that was not due to global warming, “but we are looking at this event as a potential window into the future as what conditions could look like,” McCabe said.

Kathi Lefebvre, a co-author and marine biologist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the bloom resulted in the highest levels of domoic acid contamination in the food web ever recorded for many species.

Domoic acid accumulates in anchovies, sardines and other small fish as well as shellfish that eat the algae.

Marine mammals and fish-eating birds in turn can get sick from eating the contaminated fish. In people, it can trigger amnesic shellfish poisoning, which can cause permanent loss of short-term memory in severe cases.

Sea lions in California commonly experienced seizures, a common sign of domoic acid poisoning, during harmful algae blooms along that state’s coast. But 2015 was the first year that such harmful effects were documented as far north as Washington state, scientists said.

“This is an eye-opener for what the future may hold as ocean conditions continue to warm globally,” Lefebvre said.

Chlorine bleach plants threaten 63 million people in U.S.

Eighty-six facilities in the United States continue to use huge quantities of chlorine gas in their manufacturing process and endanger more than 63 million people living in nearby areas.

Earlier this week, Greenpeace released a new report on the hazards posed by chlorine bleach plants across the United States.

“In spite of the evident risks and availability of safer alternatives, our latest report on the industry shows that some chlorine bleach manufacturers continue to use chlorine gas, putting almost one in every five Americans in danger of a potential release from a substance so toxic it has been used as a chemical weapon in the past” said Rick Hind, legislative director at Greenpeace.

The environmental group said the hazard goes beyond the use of the chlorine gas in the manufacturing process, as chlorine bleach manufacturers frequently ship and receive their supply in 90-ton rail cars vulnerable to accidents and acts of sabotage.

“Every day, rail cars crisscross the country delivering hundreds of tons of chlorine gas and endangering the communities through which they travel. Just one of such rail car can put much of an entire city in danger” Hind said.

Monsanto’s glyphosate most widely used weed-killer

Monsanto’s signature herbicide glyphosate, first marketed as “Roundup,” is now the most widely and heavily applied weed-killer in the history of chemical agriculture in both the U.S. and globally, according to a report published today.

The paper, published Feb. 2, in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, reports that to date 8.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate have been used globally. Glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready” genetically engineered crops were introduced in 1996.

In 2014, enough glyphosate was sprayed to leave more than three-quarters of a pound of the active ingredient on every harvested acre of cropland in the U.S., and remarkably, almost a half pound per acre on all cropland worldwide (0.53 kilogram/hectare).

The paper by Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., titled “Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and Globally,” is available free online at Environmental Sciences Europe. 

“The dramatic and rapid growth in overall use of glyphosate will likely contribute to a host of adverse environmental and public health consequences,” Benbrook wrote.

Last year, 17 of the world’s top cancer researchers voted unanimously to elevate glyphosate’s cancer profile on behalf of the World Health Organization. After the panel of experts reviewed all of the publicly available research, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the weed-killer as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  Following WHO’s action, the state of California is currently in the process of listing glyphosate as a known human carcinogen under its Proposition 65 law.

As Benbrook’s paper notes, other recent studies have found connections between glyphosate exposure and a number of other serious health effects, including liver and kidney damage and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, among others. 

Remarkably, 74 percent of all glyphosate sprayed on crops since the mid-1970s was applied in just the last 10 years, as cultivation of genetically engineered corn and soybean crops exploded on both U.S. and global croplands.  

Glyphosate was first sold commercially in 1974, but its use by farmers was limited at first because the active ingredient killed both weeds and crops. The subsequent development and approval of genetically engineered (GE), herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops dramatically changed how farmers could apply it. Starting in 1996, Monsanto and other seed companies began marketing GE-HT versions of three major crops – cotton, corn, and soybeans – making it possible for farmers to apply glyphosate for months after crops started growing.

The use and efficacy of HT technology, particularly in its first decade, led to its rapid and near-universal adoption in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and a half-dozen other countries. As a result, glyphosate use by U.S. farmers rose from 12.5 million pounds in 1995 to 250 million pounds in 2014, a 20-fold increase. Globally, total use rose from 112.6 million pounds in 1995 to 1.65 billion in 2014, a nearly 15-fold jump.

“My hope is that this paper will stimulate more research on glyphosate use and human and environmental exposure patterns to increase the chance that scientists will quickly detect any problems that might be triggered, or made worse, by glyphosate exposure,” Benbrook added.

“This report makes it clear that the use of glyphosate, combined with the dominance of genetically engineered crops, has produced a looming public health threat both in the U.S. and around the world,” said Mary Ellen Kustin, senior policy analyst at EWG. “Farmers have sprayed billions of pounds of a chemical now considered a probable human carcinogen over the past decade. Growers spray glyphosate several times a year on the majority of U.S. cropland. The sheer volume of use of this toxic weed-killer is a clear indication that this chemical dependency is a case of farming gone wrong.” 

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.

Navajo Nation president: Suicides linked to pollution of sacred waterways

In testimony before Congress, letters to the federal government and press releases, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and his vice president have brought up recent tragedies that have shaken some reservation towns to their cores.

They said eight people killed themselves in communities impacted by the unleashing of toxic waste from a Colorado gold mine into the San Juan River on the Navajo Nation, burdened by the stress of seeing a sacred waterway polluted.

“When you’re being abandoned in your great time of need, what do you do? It causes great amount of distress,” Begaye said at a recent Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing where he pleaded for more resources from the federal government over the spill.

Some residents in the affected communities were skeptical, wondering whether there’s a direct correlation between the mine spill and suicides. Some saw the suggested link as an effort for tribal leaders to score political points on a national stage.

Residents in the region learned something was wrong with the river — a vital source of water for livestock, drinking and crops — through social media, radio reports and by seeing new people around their towns. The Aug. 5 spill took days to reach the reservation.

Farmers wept at the sight of their crops wilting, livestock owners started hauling water from elsewhere to sustain their animals and the tribal utility stopped pulling drinking water from the river.

Begaye responded harshly to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and hosted prominent environment advocate Erin Brockovich on a tour of the reservation.

Begaye invoked suicides in a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Oct. 2, asking for a preliminary damage assessment from the mine spill. The agency denied the request.

Begaye also referenced “three suicides in communities that were affected by the Gold King Mine spill” in a mid-September plea to the federal government for mental health and cancer treatment facilities on the reservation.

He told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee of the suicides a day later during a hearing on the impacts of the mine spill.

A spokesman for the president at the time said Begaye was referring to suicides in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez have said the tribe’s Department of Health is investigating any connection between the suicides and the mine spill. Neither one responded to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Messages left at the health department weren’t returned.

Between July 1 and Oct. 15, at least 10 people died of suicide in the two police districts that cover communities along the San Juan River, according to Navajo police statistics. Six of those happened after the mine spill.

The statistics also show more than three times as many suicide attempts in those districts.

But the communities also suffer deep hardships like rampant unemployment, poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence that are major contributors to high suicide rates – an issue on American Indian reservations nationwide.

The suicide rate for American Indians aged 15 to 24 is more than twice the national rate.

Local churches responded to the suicides with prayer walks. Students participated in a program about American Indian pride and values, helping one another and leadership. Tribal, county and state agencies sent in counselors and others to help.

The Utah Navajo Health System declared an emergency, freeing up resources for programs, services and staffing. Hendy said his organization got the OK to hire someone dedicated to addressing suicide prevention, substance abuse and healthy lifestyles.

EPA announces new protections for farmworkers

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today increased protections for the nation’s 2 million agricultural workers and their families.

Each year, thousands of potentially preventable pesticide exposure incidents are reported that lead to sick days, lost wages and medical bills but with changes to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard the risk of injury or illness resulting from contact with pesticides on farms and in forests, nurseries and greenhouses can be reduced.

“President Obama has called closing gaps of opportunity a defining challenge of our time. Meeting that challenge means ensuring healthy work environments for all Americans, especially those in our nation’s vulnerable communities,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a news release. “We depend on farmworkers every day to help put the food we eat on America’s dinner tables — and they deserve fair, equitable working standards with strong health and safety protections.  With these updates we can protect workers, while at the same time preserve the strong traditions of our family farms and ensure the continued the growth of our agricultural economy.”

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said, “No one should ever have to risk their lives for their livelihoods, but far too many workers, especially those who work in agriculture, face conditions that challenge their health and safety every day.”

He continued, “Workplace illness and injury contribute greatly to economic inequality, and can have a devastating impact on workers and their families. By promoting workplace safety, these provisions will enhance economic security for people struggling to make ends meet and keep more Americans on the job raising the crops that feed the world, and we are proud to support the EPA in this effort.”

EPA’s updates reflect comment federal and state partners and the agricultural community including farmworkers, farmers and industry.

The EPA said the provisions will help ensure farmworkers nationwide receive annual safety training; that children under the age of 18 are prohibited from handling pesticides; and that workers are aware of the protections they are afforded under today’s action and have the tools needed to protect themselves and their families from pesticide exposure.

These revisions will publish in the Federal Register within the next 60 days. 

Erin Brockovich accuses feds of lying about toxic spill

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich, made famous from the Oscar-winning movie bearing her name, this week accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of lying about how much toxic wastewater spilled from a Colorado mine and fouled rivers in three Western states.

Her allegation came during a visit to the nation’s largest American Indian reservation, where she saw the damage and met with Navajo Nation leaders and farmers affected by last month’s spill, which was triggered by an EPA crew during excavation work.

Brockovich said she was shocked by the agency’s actions leading up to the release of waste tainted with heavy metals and its response afterward.

“They did not tell the truth about the amount. There were millions and millions of gallons,” she said while speaking to a crowd of high school students in Shiprock, New Mexico.

The EPA did not immediately respond to email and telephone requests for comment. The agency initially pegged the spill at 1 million gallons but later said it was likely three times that amount given the readings of stream gauges that recorded a spike in river flows.

The revision only added to the suspicion of local officials that were criticizing the agency for failing to notify them sooner that the contaminated plume was headed downstream.

Uncertainty lingers over the long-term dangers to public health and the environment from the spill, which contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. EPA says the threat has eased, allowing treatment plants to start drawing water from the rivers again and ending warnings against recreational activities. But Navajo leadership is skeptical.

A series of congressional hearings investigating the spill will begin Wednesday. Republican committee leaders in the House and Senate say that EPA officials have withheld documents that could explain what went wrong.

Navajo President Russell Begaye also questions the number of gallons released. He recounted for Brockovich what he saw during an unannounced visit to the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, days after the spill. He said he saw a wide gully that was several feet deep and water continuing to pour out of the mine.

Some Navajo irrigation systems remain shuttered until the tribe receives results from its own water and sediment testing. As a result, Begaye has said thousands of acres of crops have gone dry.

Begaye and Brockovich met with farmers to discuss the effects of the spill on irrigation as well as the legacy of contamination left behind by decades of uranium mining.

During the stop in Shiprock, they told the students that it will be up to the next generation to hold government and private industry accountable.

“It’s a terrible disaster, and unfortunately it’s a situation we see playing itself out not only on the Navajo Nation, but across the United States of America,” Brockovich said, referring to pollution and lax enforcement.

“You are the future and you will be the answers,” she told the students.

Brockovich was portrayed in the 2000 movie, “Erin Brockovich,” which earned actress Julia Roberts an acting Oscar. The environmental advocate helped investigate a major case of groundwater contamination in California in the early 1990s that inspired the film.

As for the Gold King spill, Brockovich said the federal government needs to clean up the mess.

Navajo officials say the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the EPA have declined the tribe’s requests for continued help, including the appointment of a federal recovery coordinator.

A FEMA spokeswoman said the EPA was the lead agency and would be responsible for coordinating with the tribe and other local governments.

ExxonMobil gets reduced settlement after toxic pollution in New Jersey

A New Jersey court on Aug. 25 approved a settlement between ExxonMobil and Gov. Chris Christie’s administration over damages due for decades of toxic soil and water contamination in the northern part of the state.

The settlement gives the oil giant a more than 98 percent discount on the state’s original price tag for restoring and replacing the resources, according to environmental advocates.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, along with six other environmental groups, made several efforts to block the settlement.

Margaret Brown, an attorney with the NRDC, said, “This is a multi-billion-dollar gift to ExxonMobil from Gov. Christie and his administration, at the expense of New Jersey residents. After a decade-long court battle, this spring the Christie administration abruptly and inexplicably gave the oil giant a more than 98 percent discount on the damages due for its destruction.

She added, “This is a slap on the wrist that will do nothing to repair environmental damage the state itself called ‘as obvious as it is staggering and unprecedented in New Jersey.’”

Exxon’s corporate predecessors began operating at Bayonne in 1877, and at the Bayway Refinery in Linden in 1909.

Exxon filled wetlands to develop the sites, spilled petroleum products and other hazardous substances from its refineries and chemical plants onto the land and into the water there, and used natural areas as primitive waste dumps.

In addition to heavy and pervasive contamination at the sites, the pollution migrated to the waters of the Upper New York Bay and the Arthur Kill, which separates Staten Island from mainland New Jersey.

The New Jersey state court held Exxon liable for damages to the sites.

At a trial to fix the amount of damages Exxon would have to pay, the state’s witnesses described once-healthy salt marshes smothered in contaminated fill and other wastes, unlined pits of mixed oily wastes more than 10 feet deep and extensive chemical soil contamination.

The witnesses described the Bayonne site as so saturated with oil that there is more than 15 feet of petroleum waste floating on top of the underlying groundwater in some places. In other places, petroleum has leached from the ground and hardened, creating an asphalt-like material on the surface.

In its final brief before proposing the settlement, the state described the scope of the environmental damage resulting from the discharges “as obvious as it is staggering and unprecedented in New Jersey.”

The state had originally sought $8.9 billion but the court-approved settlement is for $225 million. The judge described this as a “reasonable compromise.” About $50 million will go to remediation, $50 million to legal costs and the rest to the state’s general fund.