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The Madison Water Utility Board is seeking stronger protections for Madison’s drinking water supply from hazardous chemicals that have spread through groundwater from the heavily contaminated Truax Air National Guard base.

After months of emphasizing that levels of the chemical compounds, known as PFAS, detected in two municipal wells were below a federal health advisory, Water Utility Board members this week called for consideration of more aggressive steps in response to citizen complaints that President Donald Trump’s administration, the military and state regulators haven’t done enough.

PFAS compounds that have been used for decades in firefighting foam, and consumer products such as nonstick pans, stain-proof fabrics and waterproof paper, have been linked to health hazards including low fertility, high cholesterol, immune system deficiencies, risk of several types of cancer and stunted development of children and fetuses.

After hearing from a pediatrician, people who have been drinking PFAS-tainted water and other advocates, members of the board directed water utility staff to:

  • Prepare for possible shutdown of two contaminated wells.
  • Plan more accurate testing of all 23 municipal wells.
  • Ask Wisconsin’s congressional delegation for funding for a Truax cleanup.
  • Request that the Madison-Dane County public health agency inform vulnerable families about risks, and to seek more information from states such as Minnesota and Michigan that have enacted stronger measures to detect and cleanup PFAS.
  • Urge the state Department of Natural Resources to set an enforceable state drinking water standard for PFAS.

Call for task force

Meanwhile, Ald. David Ahrens, 15th District, a water board member, said during Tuesday’s meeting he would ask the City Council to create a PFAS task force that would bring city, county and state agencies together on the issue.

Ahrens said the Air National Guard should be invited to participate. One thing the task force should consider is a local advisory that could be issued warning about the special risk PFAS poses for infants and children.

Maria Powell, president of Midwest Environmental Justice Organization, who last year took the lead in researching and advocating about PFAS contamination in Madison, called for a task force that could recommend steps local government could take if PFAS levels reach “action levels” below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. Examples include providing filters at the well or in homes.

Scientists, other states and the federal government’s toxicology agency have said the EPA level wasn’t low enough to protect health, especially for children, infants and fetuses.

Other sites noted

Dr. Beth Neary, a Madison pediatrician and member of the Wisconsin Environmental Health Network, told the board Wisconsin should follow the lead of other states that have taken action to regulate the toxic compounds with stricter limits.

“In addition, we need to ensure that continued contamination is not occurring from fire training sites, airports and landfills,” Neary said. “For families with infants and young children, we should recommend use of filters to decrease the exposure of the children while we await setting limits.”

Different industries have created more than 3,000 kinds of PFAS, but the EPA’s advisory of 70 parts per trillion covers only two of the most well-known compounds.

Tests at Well 15 in October found six PFAS compounds with a total concentration of 42 parts per trillion. The level for just the two well-known compounds was 10.5 parts per trillion. The water utility this month stepped up testing at the well.

The EPA advisory isn’t enforceable, and it has been controversial as independent researchers and, in the last year, a U.S. Department of Health Services toxicology agency, found the advisory was five times too high to protect children and fetuses.

Lengthy process

The department is examining possible state water standards, but the process is expected to take years. Advocates have expressed frustration because many PFAS compounds travel quickly through water. Lakes, streams and drinking water are at risk wherever the compounds have been released. Typical sources include military bases, paper manufacturers, plating factories and wastewater treatment plants.

The Air National Guard has found concentrations of the two PFAS compounds as high as 39,841 parts per trillion at the Truax base on Madison’s North Side. But the military hasn’t produced groundwater monitoring data that would help predict if and when higher levels could reach Well 15.

There are also unanswered questions about levels of contamination reaching Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona. PFAS in fish tissue is also a serious health hazard, and the chemicals have been detected in Wisconsin fish.

The DNR and the military say the Truax investigation and possible future cleanup are constrained by budget limits.

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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.