An environmental advocacy group has settled court cases against Dane County and the Madison Water Utility after both agreed to release public records relating to hazardous chemicals known as PFAS.
Midwest Environmental Advocates filed the cases in March on behalf of Citizens for Open Government, an anonymous group that had tried for months to obtain government communications about the synthetic compounds, which have for decades been used in firefighting foam and household products and have recently been linked to cancer and other illnesses.
MEA dropped the case against the county earlier this month when the county provided the records — almost a year after the initial request was filed — and agreed to pay a little more than $6,000 in court costs and damages.
Asked in May 2019 for copies of 16 months worth of emails to and from County Executive Joe Parisi and his chief of staff pertaining to PFAS contamination at the Dane County Regional Airport, the county first provided unrelated documents and later said it could not locate records with multiple search terms or phrases such as “Air National Guard.”
MEA staff attorney Rob Lee said it should not have taken court action to obtain the records.
“We tried to obtain the records the right way and even wrote not one but two letters,” Lee said. “Unfortunately it took the extreme of filing a lawsuit to finally get the records.”
Records provided by MEA include emails to Parisi and Chief of Staff Josh Wescott from concerned citizens requesting a public meeting as well as questions from reporters about PFAS contamination at the airport.
There were no emails from Parisi and no response to the meeting requests.
MEA also announced it had settled a separate case against the Madison Water Utility after the utility agreed to turn over PFAS-related records it had previously denied.
After an initial request in November, the water utility provided some records but withheld any emails containing “records of an ongoing investigation,” arguing that they could contain inaccurate or unreliable information that could confuse or mislead the public.
The utility had also refused to turn over emails from the National Guard and city officials, saying it was not the legal custodian of those records.
Both the county and water utility have come under increased scrutiny in recent years after the chemicals were found in the ground and stormwater at the airport and in 14 of Madison’s 23 wells, including one that was shut down as a precaution in March 2019.
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