It could be another two to four years before Dane County has enough information to know how to address contamination at the airport caused by PFAS — a group of manmade chemicals that can exist in the environment for possibly centuries.
For years, firefighting efforts at Dane County Regional Airport and Truax Field on Madison's north side, which also houses the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing, included using a substance that contained PFAS. The Federal Aviation Administration continues to require using this substance, citing its effectiveness. In 2018, the Department of Natural Resources found PFAS contamination in soils and groundwater underneath the guard’s base.
Since then, Dane County, the city of Madison and the Wisconsin Air National Guard — all named by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2019 as responsible for remediating contamination at the airport — have been dealing with the issue.
“Although there aren’t quick answers here, it doesn't mean we’re not making progress,” Dane County assistant corporation counsel Amy Tutwiler said at a County Board committee of the whole meeting Thursday addressing PFAS remediation at the airport. “We are all committed to solving this problem for the community.”
It’s a tricky problem with the responsible parties working on various ongoing solutions.
Complicating the situation, the Air National Guard is moving forward with construction of a 19,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art F-35 flight simulator facility that requires demolishing a 4,600-square-foot facility on the base, disturbing the contaminated soil.
Also, the county’s agreement with the Air National Guard for firefighting expired, which airport director Kim Jones said leaves the two “working under a handshake agreement” to provide these services.
Some question if the county can use this joint use agreement to force the Guard to clean up PFAS before building new structures. But Jones said that’s not an option for this type of agreement, which details responsibilities for the joint facilities and their operations.
“Its intent is to address the airfield joint use; it is not to address environmental issues,” Jones said.
The DNR is working with the Guard on how its construction project can move forward and to regulate the management of contaminated soils through the project’s material management plans.
Col. Michael Hinman said 20% of the construction site contains PFAS, though the levels are below the DNR’s recommendations for appropriate levels. Currently, the Guard is looking to remediate the soil because the landfill won't accept it. The other costly option would be to ship the soil to a facility in Oregon.
“In the National Guard, we live in the community we serve and we share the community’s concern about any possible impacts on drinking water sources,” Lt. Col. Dan Statz, deputy commander of the 115th Mission Support Group, said.
Statz said the Air National Guard has “no intention” of discontinuing firefighting services at the airport. Also, he said the Guard plans to continue construction and soil remediation as regulators allow.
County Supervisor Yogesh Chawla, District 6, is concerned that more wells in the Madison area could be affected by PFAS. The city of Madison shut down Well 15, located near the airport, in March 2019 after discovering PFAS.
Madison’s water utility recommended implementing conservation measures to balance water supply on the east side and across the city given the continued closure of this well.
“We are already seeing real pressures on providing the drinking water that is needed for our community,” Chawla said in an interview.
He asked Tutwiler to provide a legal opinion on how the county could regulate activity at the airport using its storm water ordinances.
“The county needs to explore any and all authority that we have to keep our drinking water supply safe,” Chawla said. "To date, it has been disappointing that our elected officials haven’t taken these concerns more seriously.”
Last September, the Air National Guard Readiness Center chose Truax Field to receive a remedial investigation for PFAS. This effort, which is coordinated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, involves collecting data to determine the extent of contamination and assess risk to human health and the environment.
This two- to four-year effort is the third step in a federal process established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)— also known as Superfund — that oversees the cleanup of hazardous materials.
“That’s a huge milestone in the CERCLA process,” Statz said.
Next up: a feasibility study that will develop and evaluate possible remedies. This could take another four years, according to the guard.
While the remedial investigation will address former fire training areas on Darwin Road and Pearson Street, the DNR approved interim actions to reduce the movement of PFAS compounds from the airport via Starkweather Creek.
These actions include studying samples of Starkweather Creek to better understand the distribution and concentration of PFAS in the creek in areas within and just downstream of the airport boundary. Also, Dane County is working to improve storm water pipes that may be leaking or broken.
“The goal is to grout and basically tighten where contamination at highest levels is coming in, so we can prevent groundwater from infiltrating the system,” Tutwiler said, noting a goal of completing the work in the fall.
Dane County is also looking into technology that could potentially remove PFAS substances by capturing and containing them and working on reducing the discharge of PFAS coming from the storm water system into Starkweather Creek.
Tutwiler told the County Board there’s many reasons to have confidence the situation is being handled effectively, professionally and transparently.
“We’re not dealing with a situation that is out of control,” Tutwiler said. “But it does take time.”
To date, a public town hall on airport remediation that was delayed by the pandemic has not been rescheduled. Jones said she hopes to hold it before September. More information can be found on the airport’s website.
This story has been updated to reflect that the Federal Aviation Administration mandates that airports use a firefighting agent containing PFAS.
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