Starting in January, Madison’s water utility will step up its testing for toxic chemicals that are spreading from highly contaminated soil and groundwater at Truax Air National Guard Base on the city’s North Side.
Fluorinated compounds, known as PFAS, from military firefighting foam have soaked into soil and shallow groundwater on the base, and last year the chemicals turned up in low levels nearly a mile away at Madison Water Utility’s Well 15 on East Washington Avenue.
The Air National Guard has known about the contamination for at least three years but hasn’t monitored its spread, so there’s no way to know if or when the levels in Well 15 waters will rise to more dangerous levels.
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To keep track of the concentrations being drawn into the well, the Madison Water Utility will begin taking one sample monthly at the well next month at a cost of $250 to $700 per sample, said spokeswoman Amy Barrilleaux.
Evidence has mounted since the 1990s linking PFAS compounds to cancer and an array of other serious health problems in children and adults.
But there is no enforceable federal or Wisconsin safety standard for the more than 3,000 synthetic PFAS compounds that have been created for use in products from heat-resistant firefighting foam to nonstick frying pans to pizza boxes to fabric.
Federal agencies and other states that have set health advisory levels for PFAS in groundwater have focused on two of the most well-known PFAS compounds. Those two were detected in well water at levels below the advisory level in 2017.
Also detected in the well water were three other PFAS compounds for which no federal or Wisconsin health advisory levels have been set. In April, a sixth type of PFAS was detected. Results from more recent samples weren’t available.
If PFAS levels rise, the cost of installing a filter probably would easily exceed $3 million. The water utility hasn’t released an estimate for the cost of safely disposing of PFAS caught in a filter.
Disposal could be costly. PFAS compounds are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down into safer compounds.
National Guard Bureau contractors visited the base in November 2017 to test for two PFAS compounds, and they have been compiling a report for the DNR.
An Air National Guard spokesman said public safety was one of the guard’s top priorities.
“The Wisconsin National Guard is in full compliance with all federally mandated standards and environmental regulations related to (the two compounds), and we look forward to continuing to work with the state, local communities and the Department of Defense to ensure we remain good stewards of our environment,” said Wisconsin National Guard spokesman Capt. Joseph Trovato.
Delays could be costly
The Air National Guard was aware of PFAS contamination on the base in 2015, and last April the guard informed the state Department of Natural Resources. DNR notified the military in an April 26 letter of deadlines spelled out in state law, including a requirement that it create a plan to investigate the contamination within 60 days.
“The longer contamination is left in the environment, the farther it can spread and the more it may cost to clean up,” the DNR said in the letter. “Quick action may lessen damage to your property and neighboring properties and reduce your costs in investigating and cleaning up the contamination.”
In May, the DNR responded to a plan submitted by the Guard by calling for additional sampling of soil and both shallow and deep groundwater at nine potential contamination sources on the base and other locations off the base so that movement of the underground pollution plume could be tracked.
In early December, the DNR said it wasn’t aware of any sampling done off the base. Officials weren’t available Friday, but the agency web page for the site didn’t indicate a plan had been submitted.
The DNR has said timing of an investigation and cleanup would be determined by the military and its budget.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests a certain method for detecting between 14 and 18 PFAS compounds, but when the water utility used it in 2015 for EPA-mandated testing it failed to detect any PFAS.
In 2017 the water utility used a more sensitive method that could detect lower levels of more PFAS compounds.
Testing that begins in January will probably be able to detect at least 12 of the compounds, Barrilleaux said.
Maria Powell, president of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization in Madison, said the water utility should use a modification of the EPA method that can detect 30 PFAS compounds, and other more sophisticated sampling technology.
“Using both methods will better inform the risks to public health and assure that subsequent decisions are based on the most comprehensive data,” Powell said.
Powell, other activists and some elected officials have called for quicker action on a cleanup, for public meetings to inform more people about potential risks, and for Wisconsin to set standards that could free up federal cleanup money.
The DNR has taken several steps in the direction of setting enforceable standards for the two most well-known PFAS compounds, but the processes take months or years to complete.
The EPA health advisory suggests a limit for those two compounds combined in drinking water.
The EPA advisory has been criticized as too lax. Several states have set tighter advisories or standards.
Linda Birnbaum, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, told a Senate committee in September the best way to protect public health from PFAS compounds was to consider them as a group of compounds.
“Approaching PFAS as a class for assessing exposure and biological impact is the best way to protect public health,” Birnbaum said.
The DNR also said it is evaluating but hasn’t finalized plans to look systematically for other PFAS contamination sites in locations where they have likely been used in manufacturing — paper manufacturing and metal plating are two examples.