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Well 8 pumphouse

Madison Water Utility is taking steps to protect one of its drinking water wells, Well 8 in Olbrich Park, from an underground plume of hazardous chemicals. A $100,000 sentry well is expected to be installed near Lowell Elementary School. The well draws water from 255 feet below the pump house on the park's sledding hill.

A new report estimates that the soonest a plume of hazardous chemicals from the Madison-Kipp plant could reach city drinking water would be five or six years from now, and it could take decades.

An independent consultant hired by Madison Water Utility recommends installation of a sentinel well near Lowell Elementary School between the plant and Well 8 in Olbrich Park to provide an early warning.

In his report, hydrologist Eric Oelkers said the edge of the plume closest to the well may no longer be advancing, but it’s not possible to be certain with data available from ground water monitoring wells the company has installed.

The water utility has budgeted about $100,000 for the sentinel well, which is to be drilled next year between the factory and the well on land close to Lowell Elementary School.

The water utility will forward Oelkers’ 69-page report to the state Department of Natural Resources and ask the department to require Madison-Kipp to pay for the new well, said the utility’s water supply manager, Joe DeMorett.

Several years ago, a consultant hired by Madison-Kipp said the plume seemed to have stopped spreading, based on data from a monitoring well 600 feet north of Well 8 that has at times detected very low concentrations of toxins, much lower than what is found nearer to the plant. But an expert hired by the water utility in 2015 concluded that the company study wasn’t thorough enough.

Madison-Kipp has installed monitoring wells that can collect ground water samples at about two dozen locations on and around its property. The wells are able to sample from a variety of depths, but none goes deep enough to reach the water drawn by Well 8.

Well 8 pulls from the deep aquifer beneath a layer of rock called the Eau Claire Formation. The hard shale layer is 255 feet below the Well 8 pump house.

The Eau Claire Formation runs between 14 and 21 feet thick in places. It serves to keep surface contaminants from reaching the deep ground water.

As a general principle, there has been reluctance to drill through it and open pathways for pollutants. But in the last decade, as viruses have been detected in the deep aquifer, scientists have come to understand more about the extent to which fractures already exist.

If there is a pathway through the shale for Madison-Kipp’s pollutants to reach the deep aquifer, they could reach Well 8 as soon as five years from now, Oelkers said.

PCE contamination

‘fairly widespread’ in city

Madison-Kipp has been extracting and treating the tainted ground water in an effort to stop the plume’s progress. But Oelkers said in his report that beyond the area where the water is extracted on company grounds, contaminants will probably continue to migrate.

The plume consists of industrial solvents including the likely human carcinogen tetrachloroethylene, or PCE.

Very high concentrations of PCE and other pollutants that pose serious health hazards — polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs — have been found under the plant floor. But Madison-Kipp has argued that it shouldn’t be forced to remove those.

The company has spent millions of dollars testing and disposing of contaminated soil on and around the plant grounds, and it installed equipment to protect nearby homes from PCE vapors.

Vapors are a hazard when PCE is in shallow ground water, but the material tends to sink through the aquifer. Sampling data indicate that except for the blocks surrounding the plant, most of the PCE plume is below the upper water table, and closer to the deep aquifer that provides the city’s drinking water.

On Friday, company president and CEO Tony Koblinski responded to the consultant’s report by noting that the company stopped using PCE decades ago and that other businesses have also left the material in the ground.

“I would just hope that you appreciate, and occasionally report, that although people like to refer to the ‘Kipp Plume’, the PCE contamination, which is fairly widespread in Madison, was undoubtedly caused by the collective practices of industrial sites (including dry cleaning facilities) all over the city,” Koblinski said in a statement.

Koblinski said he wasn’t aware of documentation showing the extent to which another business may have contributed to the PCE plume that stretches out for blocks around the plant.

“To be clear, I am not trying to dodge that the PCE directly under our site is likely from us, but just that it is very unlikely that there is a (homogeneous) plume that extends a thousand feet from Kipp that is only from Kipp,” Koblinski said.

Koblinski said monitoring wells next to the plant and one that is just south of the school act as a sentinel protecting Well 8.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick said staff members working on the Madison-Kipp project weren’t available Friday afternoon.

DeMorett said the DNR would need to approve drilling of the sentinel well.

The water utility’s Well 7 near East Washington and Lien Road has for several years treated the water it pumps to remove PCE believed to have originated at a dry-cleaning business, DeMorett said.

The consultant’s report said the plume continues to spread to the north. The nearest drinking water well in that direction is about two miles away on Sherman Avenue.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.