Madison Water Utility Joe Grande

Water Quality Manager Joe Grande addresses the Madison Water Utility Board on Feb. 5.

As Madison continues to explore low levels of chemical contaminants in an east side well, residents remain concerned with the potential adverse health effects and frustrated with the federally established health advisory level.

The Madison Water Utility began what will be monthly testing at Well 15, located at 3900 E. Washington Ave., in February. The utility first found trace amounts of several types of unregulated contaminants called perfluorinated compounds, known as PFAS or Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyls, in Well 15 in 2017. 

After a period of monitoring, the utility will determine whether to continue monthly testing. The first round of monthly test results for Well 15 are expected by the end of February.

Madison Water Utility general manager Tom Heikkinen said at a Water Utility Board meeting on Tuesday that even at the low levels found in Well 15, the presence of PFAS compounds are concerning.

“We haven’t ruled out any operational response, but what we are trying to do is make sure whatever we recommend is based upon some sound science … as well as consistent and sound policy at the water board level,” Heikkinen said.

Perfluorinated compounds are used to manufacture firefighting foams, nonstick cookware, stain-resistant clothing and food packaging. They are typically found in groundwater near airports or landfills. Well 15 is located near Truax National Air Base.

The contaminants are highly soluble in water, do not degrade easily, are mobile in the environment and build up in the body. Implications for human health depend on the level and duration of exposure.

The most consistent findings from studies show that exposure to PFAS compounds can result in increased cholesterol levels, according to the city and county’s public health department. Limited findings show a potential association with liver damage, thyroid hormone disruption, decreased antibody response to vaccines, pregnancy-induced hypertension and lower infant birth weights.

The current level detected in Well 15, 11 parts-per-trillion, is not considered a potential threat to human health.

Josh Knackert, an east side resident, raised concerns specifically for him and his 1-year-old daughter. He said he has a kidney condition that requires him to drink three to four gallons of water per day.

“It makes me very concerned mainly as a father, but also for my daughter, for the load that I will experience and she will experience over her lifetime,” Knackert said. “We’re taking a risk for how much our bodies will pick up.”

Both Knackert’s home and his daughter’s day care are served by Well 15. This well provides water supply to areas along the East Washington corridor, the airport, the American Family area and East Towne.

PFAS study history

The Water Utility tested four wells in 2012 and did not detect PFAS compounds. A 2016 Environmental Protection Agency-directed test for PFAS in all the city’s wells also did not reveal any compounds.

However in 2017, the utility tested five city wells near the airport and old landfills — Wells 7, 15, 16, 18 and 29 — using methods that were more sensitive to lower levels of PFAS compounds. Results showed trace amounts of PFAS compounds at Well 16 on Mineral Point Road in addition to Well 15.

A test in March 2018 of only Well 15 also showed results for a compound called perfluorohexanoic acid, PFHxA, which is often used in firefighting foams.

MWU's water quality manager Joe Grande said the monitoring at Well 15 “far exceeds any federal or state monitoring requirements.”

“No regulatory body that oversees our work has raised concerns about the PFAS levels at Well 15 or has recommended we take corrective action at this time,” Grande said. “This issue is complex and uncertain, however we remain responsive to the evolving regulatory environment.”

One issue with responding to PFAS compounds is that there are no federal or state drinking water standards or federal testing requirements for these contaminants. The EPA does not regulate PFAS compounds in drinking water but has set a lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts-per-trillion for two of the many types types of the PFAS compounds called PFOA and PFOS.

Several Madison residents at the board meeting highlighted an issue with the health advisory. Other states, including Minnesota, Vermont and New Jersey, have set lower limits.

“We’ve heard loud and strong that the (70 parts-per-trillion) is inadequate,” Grande said.

Some questioned if the city should shut down Well 15 and retest all of the wells. Grande roughly estimated that it would cost between $7,000 and $10,000 to conduct another citywide test.

In April 2018, the water utility discovered it faced a $6 million deficit created by a multi-billion-dollar water main replacement project, the loss of big water consumers like Oscar Mayer and successful conservation methods.

“This year has been the year of promising to do nothing extra and promising to keep our costs low,” board chair Lauren Cnare said. “Now we’re in a situation where we might need to spend some money.”

Moving forward, the board asked utility staff to gather information that includes:

  • Creating a contingency plan for shutting down Well 15 and Well 16
  • Drafting a letter to federal politicians to request that funds be allocated to the study of groundwater and conduct remediation at the Truax site
  • Requesting that Grande provide a proposal and cost estimate to re-test all of the city’s wells
  • Requesting that the public health department communicate with other states that have changed the accepted PFAS compound levels
  • Creating an outreach plan to vulnerable populations, especially parents of infants and children near Well 15

Ald. David Ahrens, District 15, and Marsha Rummel, District 6, also said they would ask the City Council to create a PFAS task force that would consist of city, county, state and Wisconsin Air National Guard officials. 

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