Months after state regulators approved the final cleanup of toxic soil next to a busy Madison bike path, additional high concentrations of PCBs were discovered.
Toxins were traced to an underground pipe that drains water from the adjacent Madison-Kipp Corp. plant, raising new questions about how the government has handled a tangle of pollution problems at the factory.
Madison-Kipp president and CEO Tony Koblinski on Wednesday said the pollutants found between December and March have set back efforts to resolve a state Department of Justice lawsuit that was filed in 2012, but he expects soon to have a plan for cleaning the drainage system and the bike path area.
East Side residents whose complaints led to the latest discovery say they are less hopeful.
Years after pollution problems were first documented at the site the state Department of Natural Resources hasn’t conducted a comprehensive investigation into how air, ground water and storm drains transport polychlorinated biphenyls and other toxins, said Steve Klafka, an environmental engineer who lives a few blocks away.
Instead, the cleanup has been piecemeal, with separate inquiries into hot spots under the plant floor, beneath its parking lot, in the soil around surrounding homes and in the city-owned rain garden alongside the bike path, Klafka said.
“If you are going to investigate a contaminated property, you look at where it all goes and where it all comes from,” Klafka said.
The bike path cleanup has been done one small step at a time — excavating some contaminants and sampling immediately adjacent soil, waiting for test results and then excavating a little more, Klafka said.
Not enough attention has been paid to drainage systems or even the way water pools up and is able to carry contaminated sediments from one place to another, said Maria Powell, an activist with Midwest Environmental Justice Organization.
“Government often seems to be serving industry more than serving the public,” said Powell, who has gathered thousands of documents on pollution from the plant. “A lot of these things wouldn’t even have been investigated if citizens hadn’t pushed.”
DNR spokesmen said Wednesday afternoon that they couldn’t immediately answer questions about how the agency has handled the cleanup. In the past the agency hasn’t responded to criticisms about the Madison-Kipp case.
Greg Fries, a city stormwater engineer, said Wednesday that he hadn’t yet gathered information Powell requested last week about the status of pipelines that once were in place to transport liquids in and out of the building.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PCBs accumulate in human and animal tissue and cause serious illnesses, with high concentrations likely to act quickly. Public health officials have said levels like those found around the bike path are probably hazardous only after more prolonged contact.
Powell and Klafka have been critical of the state for using the industrial limit of 0.74 parts per million as the standard for the cleanup instead of the lower residential standards, and for failing to warn users of the path during excavations.
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Much higher levels, up to 20,000 parts per million, have been found under the plant floor. PCBs were in oils the company used decades ago before they were outlawed. The oils leaked through a trench that ran down the plant floor; and they probably were spread on parking lots to keep dust down before hazards were known, said Koblinski, the CEO.
In February, the DNR signed off on the cleanup of the company parking lot north of the factory on Atwood Avenue, saying that the pavement would contain the toxins.
Last summer, the DNR signed off on the land near the bike path, which the city owns and leases to Madison-Kipp. But at the insistence of activists, the city required additional regular soil tests, said Ald. Marsha Rummel, whose district includes the plant.
In October, the city collected three samples from the top 12 inches of soil near the bike path. Only one exceeded the limit for PCBs, but it was enough to prompt Madison-Kipp to hire consultants to remove some soil and do more testing in December. PCBs more than 10 times the industrial limit were found near the path where the storm drain emptied out. Testing up the pipeline found more.
Koblinski said it’s possible that PCB-tainted soil the company removed a few years ago from neighbors’ yards on Waubesa Street ended up in the drain pipe, which collects storm water at several points under the parking lot, along the Waubesa side of the building and from the roof near the southwest corner of the plant near Atwood and Waubesa.
Klafka said he believes it’s possible the source could be PCB fumes that are vented from inside the plant to the roof. The material could collect on the roof and be washed into the drain by rain, said Klafka, who engineers air pollution controls for private companies.
Koblinski said he didn’t believe that was possible. He said the company recently completed air testing and cleanup of PCBs inside the plant.
Madison-Kipp is the target of a 2012 state Department of Justice lawsuit over pollution from the plant.
Koblinski said he had expected the lawsuit to be settled last year, but the discovery of additional PCBs near the bike path and in the drain pipe have created delays.
Koblinski has maintained that the company has complied with DNR instructions on soil cleanup since the mid-1990s when the agency first ordered monitoring wells to detect PCE, a likely human carcinogen that is also associated with other serious illnesses.
The company paid $7.2 million to settle lawsuits brought by neighbors after PCE and other contaminants spread from the plant and sent vapor into their soil and homes.
Since 2015, Madison-Kipp has been extracting contaminated groundwater in an effort to prevent the underground plume of contaminants from spreading farther from the plant. The company treats 65,000 gallons of ground water a day and deposits it in Starkweather Creek.
That year, the EPA threatened $37,500-per-day fines over inaccurate reports of air emissions the company had filed for nearly five years.