Military firefighting foam

The Department of Natural Resources is threatening legal action if the Wisconsin Air National Guard doesn't move to clean up toxic chemicals associated with firefighting foam used at Truax Field in Madison. Above, the foam is sprayed at a North Carolina military base in 2013.

Wisconsin environmental regulators are threatening legal action if the state’s Air National Guard does not move swiftly to clean up toxic chemicals that have been used at Truax Field and have turned up in Madison’s water supply.

The Department of Natural Resources believes the 115th Fighter Wing is responsible for contaminating the soil and groundwater at and around the base with a group of synthetic compounds known as PFAS, which are associated with firefighting foam.

The chemicals, linked with diseases including cancer, have been found in a municipal well about a mile from the airport.

PFAS test results in Madison wells

In an Oct. 31 letter to Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, the DNR said the Guard is in violation of spill and environmental remediation laws for not taking action to restore the environment and minimize the harmful effects of past spills.

The letter, released publicly Tuesday, is the first step in an enforcement process that could ultimately result in prosecution and comes more than a year and a half after the DNR first warned the Guard that it could face enforcement for not doing a prompt cleanup. The DNR later pledged to work cooperatively with Guard staff to come up with a project timeline.

“To date, (Wisconsin Air National Guard) has not submitted a work plan for completing the investigation,” the letter states.

The National Guard has said the Pentagon is reviewing bases across the country to determine its priorities and has not provided funding or authorization for the Wisconsin National Guard to conduct a comprehensive investigation or cleanup.

“We look forward to continuing our dialogue as we work hand-in-hand with the DNR, the city, the county, and other partners statewide to ensure we remain in compliance with all federal advisory levels for PFOS/PFOA,” Capt. Joe Trovato said Tuesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency says drinking is safe with PFOS and PFOA concentrations up to 70 parts per trillion, but the state Department of Health Services has recommended no more than 20 ppt.

The Wisconsin DNR is in the process of developing standards for ground, drinking and surface water.

Pamela Buss, an environmental enforcement specialist with the DNR, said the National Guard notified the agency Tuesday that it would attend a Nov. 18 enforcement conference to negotiate a cleanup plan.

If the National Guard does not follow through on that plan, the DNR could issue a cleanup order or refer the case to the state Department of Justice to seek a court order. Violations can result in penalties of up to $5,000 per day.

“The goal is voluntary compliance,” Buss said.

The letter comes weeks after DNR tests found significant levels of PFAS in Starkweather Creek and as the Air Force nears a decision on whether to station a squadron of F-35 jets at the base.

The DNR last week said the military’s draft environmental impact statement failed to address PFAS contamination and warned that up to $120 million in planned construction to prepare for the new jets would require a site investigation.

PFAS have been used for years in numerous products, including fast food wrappers, water-repellent fabrics and firefighting foam. Studies have shown two of the compounds may increase people’s risk of cancer and affect cholesterol levels, childhood behavior, the immune system and the ability to get pregnant.

According to government reports, firefighting foam was sprayed on the ground and washed into storm drains and sanitary sewers at Truax since at least the 1970s. A preliminary study in 2018 indicated there is a likelihood of contamination “across much of the installation.”

The DNR in 2018 informed the 115th Fighter Wing, along with the Dane County Regional Airport and the city of Madison, that they were responsible for possible PFAS contamination at former firefighter training sites — known as burn pits — near the base.

The 115th agreed to take the lead on the required investigation, which it said would be done as part of a nationwide study of bases.

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