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Opposition to military contaminants in Madison well water

As citizens groups prepared to ask the Madison Water Utility Board at its meeting on Tuesday for a more aggressive response to drinking water contamination believed to be emanating from Truax Air National Guard base, the utility announced it is taking a step advocates called for previously by testing for at least twice as many toxic compounds as it tentatively announced last month. 

As citizen groups prepared to ask the Madison Water Utility Board on Tuesday for a more aggressive response to drinking water contamination possibly from Truax Air National Guard base, the utility announced it plans to test for at least twice as many toxic compounds as previously announced.

The testing would begin in February at Well 15 on East Washington Avenue, where several varieties of a toxic chemical called PFAS have been detected at levels below a disputed health advisory issued in 2016 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Additional testing is designed to warn the utility if PFAS levels rise.

Some residents are asking the utility to shut the well down, while others say a shutdown would mean the neighborhood would drink water from other municipal wells they say haven’t been tested adequately for PFAS.

Midwest Environmental Justice Organization in Madison called for testing at all city wells, for the city and Dane County to test two firefighting training areas near the Dane County Regional Airport, and for the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District to test sewer outflows from the air base as well as treated water and sludge it discharges into public waters and onto farm fields.

Sue Pastor of the Greater Sandburg Neighborhood Association has gathered support for similar requests, and has called for more action by the air base to investigate and clean up contamination, and for a citizen advisory panel to help guide actions taken to protect public health from PFAS and other contaminants.

Water utility staff have invited neighbors to the board meeting scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in conference rooms A and B of the utility’s headquarters at 119 E. Olin Ave. Staff are expected to outline their response to the contamination.

Monthly testing of Well 15 water was to begin this month, but cold weather prevented January’s test from happening. Small amounts of water are sampled, and if they freeze before reaching a laboratory for testing, they can’t be used, the utility said in a news release.

The samples will initially be analyzed at two labs, with one looking for 24 types of PFAS, and the other looking for 30 types, based on which PFAS compounds the military tests for on its bases, according to the utility.

“The Department of Defense has a list of 24 contaminants that they’re typically testing for, and they have an accreditation process for labs that can satisfactorily quantify those 24 PFAS chemicals,” water quality manager Joe Grande said. “The plan is use two labs at least this one time, then see how the results compare. If they’re really highly variable between the two labs, we might want to do two tests again.”

“The testing is not required under state or federal regulations, and only a limited number of labs across the country can reliably carry out the expanded tests at such low concentrations,” spokeswoman Amy Barrilleaux said.

The EPA had suggested a method for detecting between 14 and 18 PFAS compounds, but when the water utility used it in 2015 for mandated testing it failed to find any PFAS.

In 2017 the water utility found the Well 15 contamination by using a more sensitive method that could detect lower levels of a broader array of PFAS compounds.

The more sensitive testing method was used on five wells that draw water near likely PFAS contamination sources such as landfills.

But Maria Powell, president of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization in Madison, said the toxic chemicals are so widespread in the environment that all city wells should be retested.

In December the utility said it would probably use a method that can detect at least 12 PFAS compounds in the monthly Well 15 tests.

At the time Powell said a modified EPA method that can detect 30 PFAS compounds should be used along with more sophisticated sampling technology.

Powell, other activists and some elected officials have called for quicker action on a cleanup at Truax, for public meetings to inform more people about potential risks, and for Wisconsin to set enforceable standards that could free up federal cleanup money.

Over the last year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has taken several steps toward setting enforceable water standards for the two most well-known PFAS compounds, but the processes take months or years to complete.

One DNR program in August set a soil cleanup standard for PFAS under existing state law for cleaning up contaminated sites, but the state business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has said it believes the DNR exceeded its authority.

DNR program managers met last week with Minnesota pollution regulators to learn more about what that state has been doing, and a Wisconsin proposal has been prepared for review by the department’s top executives, said Darsi Foss, DNR remediation and redevelopment director.

The EPA health advisory has been criticized as lax. Several states have set tighter advisories or standards.

Minnesota began battling 3M, a major PFAS manufacturer, after the discovery of contaminated drinking water and fish more than a decade ago. The state sought $5 billion in damages from the company and settled for $185 million last year after winning $40 million in 2007.

Michigan has been systematically checking for PFAS in drinking water supplies and at wastewater treatment plants. In Marinette, the virtually indestructible PFAS compounds have been found in treated water that is dumped into the Menominee River, which flows into the Green Bay, a major source of drinking water for many communities.

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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.