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Madison-Kipp Corp.

Neighbors of the Madison-Kipp Corp. may purchase air quality monitors to answer questions about emissions of fine particulate matter from the company's die-casting operations. The company has been a fixture on the city's East Side since 1903. 

Members of a Madison neighborhood group plan to put up air pollution monitors to measure fine particle emissions from an aluminum die-casting company.

The neighbors are concerned because the state Department of Natural Resources hasn’t evaluated whether Madison-Kipp Corp.’s emissions of the hazardous particles violate air quality standards.

The Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association’s environmental committee wants to spend about $2,000 on monitors that would measure airborne particulate matter around the company’s aluminum die-casting operations.

Federal regulators placed especially tight limits on fine particles because they can be inhaled deep into the lungs and pose serious health hazards.

The DNR, though, adopted a policy last year reducing its scrutiny of fine particulate matter pollution. The department said smokestack emissions of the pollutant aren’t threatening air quality, and decreasing levels of fine particles have been detected at state air monitoring stations.

Levels of fine particles have been dropping less than a mile from Madison-Kipp at East High School, where the DNR has a monitor, department spokesman Andrew Savagian said.

But Steve Klafka, an air quality engineer whose research persuaded his neighborhood association to consider purchasing monitors, said the East High School monitor is too far away to adequately measure fine particles from Madison-Kipp.

DNR monitors are designed to measure the overall background level of pollution, not the impact of smokestack emissions around a factory, he said.

Klafka said he used the same computer modeling procedures that state regulators use when he estimated that fine particle pollution exceeds air quality standards in an irregular area that reaches to Milwaukee Street on the north, Ohio Street on the west, Olbrich Gardens on the east and nearly to Lake Monona on the south.

Wisconsin is out of step with adjacent states that require reporting of fine particle emissions from businesses like Madison-Kipp that are classified as minor sources emitting less than 100 tons of the particles annually, said Klafka, whose company, Wingra Engineering, contracts with private businesses and conservation groups around the country.

Fine particles, at 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, are many times smaller in width than a human hair. The smaller the particle, the more likely that it can be inhaled deeply into the lungs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The DNR requires Madison-Kipp to report its emissions of coarse particles, which are 10 micrometers or smaller. But because the larger particles are less hazardous to health, higher emission levels are allowed for those than for fine particles.

Fine particles are more likely to affect heart and lung function andcause serious health effects, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Several large, population-based studies found strong correlations between fine particles and increased death rates, the agency said.

In 2007, before the DNR adopted standards for fine particles, it analyzed Madison-Kipp’s emissions of all particles — without differentiating between fine and coarse particles — and included limits for coarse particles in the company’s permit.

Klafka said the high-temperature processes the company uses are known to produce mostly fine particles, so he used the company’s current emission limit for coarse particles in his analysis. Assuming all of the particle pollution from Madison-Kipp is in the form of fine particles, the company is exceeding the more stringent fine-particle limit by wide margins in some areas, Klafka said.

Madison-Kipp president and CEO Tony Koblinski said the company’s emissions are so far below the allowable limit for coarse particles that it seemed unlikely Klafka’s conclusions could be true.

Koblinski also suggested that smoke from wood-burning stoves in the neighborhood could possibly provide particle emissions comparable to company smokestacks. He cited reports the EPA and a physician group in Utah published on wood smoke in other cities.

In a five-page memorandum written at Madison-Kipp’s request, TRC Engineering’s Dave Bittrich and Dave Fox cited DNR documents to assert that fine particles are not primarily emitted from smokestacks. Unlike larger particles, they are “generated overwhelmingly via secondary formation” — through chemical reactions in the atmosphere, Bittrich and Fox said.

DNR policy challenged

If neighborhood association leaders give final approval, the monitors could be in place as early as this spring, said environmental committee chairwoman Heather Driscoll.

Driscoll said she hoped the monitors wouldn’t be seen as an attack on Madison-Kipp. They are intended as a way of answering questions that have lingered for many years, she said.

“If there is a problem, we should seek a constructive solution,” Driscoll said. She said the association has a strong commitment to the neighborhood’s quality of life, and that includes members’ health, access to jobs at places like Madison-Kipp and availability of housing.

Recently, questions about air pollution have been raised in connection with housing developments planned near Madison-Kipp’s plant on Fair Oaks Avenue near Atwood, but the projects are moving forward. And just west of that plant is the company’s Waubesa Street facility, which has been the target of air pollution complaints for years, as well as a costly soil and groundwater cleanup.

Klafka said the monitors, at $300 each, will be much less sophisticated than the $50,000 to $100,000 devices typically used by government agencies. But the less expensive models will be good enough to give an indication of how much fine particle pollution is in the air, he said. Citizen groups using the monitors in other states say they can be important tools.

More air monitoring is long overdue because of Madison-Kipp’s location in the densely populated East Side neighborhood, Klafka said.

More than a decade ago, Klafka also modeled particle pollution around the plant when neighbors challenged a permit the DNR issued to Madison-Kipp. An administrative law judge ruled the permit could stand, but ordered placement of air monitors. The company ended up increasing the height of its smokestacks to ensure that it could meet the emission limits the DNR included in its 2008 permit after updating its modeling technique, Klafka said.

Standards for fine particles weren’t in place at that time.

In 2013, when Madison-Kipp’s last permit expired, the DNR could have evaluated Madison-Kipp’s fine particle emissions. Instead, it allowed the company to continue operating under the higher coarse-particle limits. State regulations allow indefinite postponement of permit renewals when a permit application is submitted in a timely fashion.

Klafka said Wisconsin’s policies may be politically correct in a state government focused on pleasing business operators, but they are based on unsound scientific assumptions.

The public interest law firm Midwest Environmental Advocates recently filed notice with the EPA that it will sue if the agency doesn’t act on a 2016 petition challenging the DNR’s recent policy change. The petition called on the EPA to insist the state do more to enforce fine-particle standards.

Under the 2016 policy change, the DNR has been permitting frac sand operations without examining each one’s impact on air quality, said MEA attorney Sarah Geers. The EPA previously cautioned the state against blanket exemptions.

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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.