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Report: Watchdogs not looking hard enough for public health hazards in lakes, fish
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Report: Watchdogs not looking hard enough for public health hazards in lakes, fish


Madison and Dane County are neglecting to use readily available tools for tracking down significant sources of toxic pollutants in the fish and waters of the Yahara chain of lakes, a conservation group says.

A two-year study by the Madison-based Midwest Environmental Justice Organization found that local governments aren’t fully using their powers to find sources of industrial contaminants, including PCBs and metals that have impaired the use of the lakes and made eating too many fish a health hazard.

MEJO executive director Maria Powell said that if the city and county traced the paths contaminants take through storm drains, they would document the sources of the pollution and trigger costly cleanups for businesses — and for the local governments themselves.

“They don’t really want to go up to the source,” Powell said. “If you don’t find it you don’t have to clean it up.”

Contaminants that pose serious health risks — including chlorinated and fluorinated chemicals, petroleum compounds and metals have been found since at least the 1980s on sites the city and county have owned and used.

Several are on Madison’s North Side — including a closed landfill, a former wastewater treatment plant, the Dane County Airport, and Truax Air National Guard base — on land that drains into the lakes.

County and city administrators of local stormwater systems didn’t dispute MEJO’s finding that they don’t systematically trace those pollutants back to their sources. They didn’t respond to requests for comment about Powell’s charge that they don’t want to find the sources.

A spokesman for the city-county public health department said many contaminant sources are already known, and the result of contaminants that were released many years ago.

Powell said that if historic pollution in soil or groundwater is still being carried into lakes by stormwater, it may mean that old contaminated sites haven’t been cleaned up properly by the state Department of Natural Resources. In any event, the law requires stronger efforts to sample waters like Starkweather Creek and find pollution sources, she said.

A Madison spokeswoman and the state DNR regulator who oversees local stormwater discussed their efforts to prevent nutrient pollution, which contributes to unnatural growths of weeds and bacterial algae, and responding to isolated incidents of illicit dumping.

Under a DNR permit that requires efforts to control pollutants that flow through stormwater into lakes and streams, local governments have focused on limiting the volumes of leaves and soil that wash off streets, and on addressing dumping of things like engine oil and food waste into storm drains typically by small businesses.

MEJO’s 54-page report acknowledged that Public Health Madison and Dane County has tested stormwater for certain pollutants, but sampling isn’t typically being used to find sources.

The public health department has tested several locations in Starkweather Creek, which carries stormwater from the North Side to Lake Monona. One reason for the testing was to learn how county airport operations affected water quality.

The department has found metals, but reports don’t attempt to document sources or provide a complete picture of results.

The department also tested the creek for nutrients, bacteria, road salt and dissolved oxygen. But reports from the last five years don’t show testing for chlorinated and fluorinated chemicals, petroleum compounds or other hazardous contaminants that have been found in soil, groundwater and surface water at the North Side sites.

The department tests based on what the DNR tells it about pollution sources, said environmental health director Doug Voegeli, said.

Voegeli said many of the contaminants polluting local waters were released long ago and are now in soil, groundwater and sediment. The health department hasn’t tried to find sources of metals because they probably didn’t come from a single source and were detected “far below the acute and chronic toxicity criteria.” However, the DNR has classified the creek as impaired because of “acute and chronic aquatic toxicity” due to unspecified metals.

PCBs make up one group of chlorinated compounds. The industrial fluids are linked to cancer and diseases of the immune and nervous systems. They have been found near the Madison-Kipp Corp. factory a few thousand feet from the creek. PCE and TCE, solvents linked to cancer and other serious health risks, have spread from the factory in an underground plume that is nearing Lake Monona and a nearby municipal well. They have also been found on the North Side.

Madison-Kipp president and CEO Tony Koblinski said Monday that despite complaints from MEJO and others, it is clear to him that local, state and federal governments have held the company accountable with fines and required cleanups.

“They are adequately holding me accountable to the applicable laws and regulations,” Koblinski said.

PFAS compounds — linked to cancer and other serious illnesses — have been found in heavy concentrations under the National Guard base. The compounds have reached Madison drinking water, but no testing of the creek or nearby groundwater has been done.

“If you are trying to figure out why that stretch of the creek is so toxic, why don’t you look at what’s around that area and measure it?” Powell said.

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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DNR have issued guidance documents on how to find pollution sources through steps such as examining state wastewater permits and pollution prevention plans for older industrial areas, the MEJO report says.

Powell said state and local officials told her their budgets wouldn’t allow them to do that work.

Invisible hazards

The MEJO report focuses on Starkweather Creek, which runs through two low-income neighborhoods before it empties into Lake Monona. Health risks from the pollution fall most heavily on low-income people, including those who depend on fishing for food, the MEJO report says.

Lake Monona is classified as “impaired” by pollutants including PCBs.

DNR lists Starkweather Creek as impaired by metals and other contaminants.

MEJO vice president Touyeng Xiong grew up near the creek. He and his father caught fish from lakes Monona and Mendota — which is also impaired because of PCBs that accumulate in fish flesh — that provided several meals a week for the family of 16 children.

Xiong, 24, said he remembers playing in Starkweather Creek with a boyhood friend. They gathered a bucketful of crayfish, boiled them and ate them, he said.

As he grew older he learned that the waters carried invisible hazards. The state advises limiting the number of fish eaten from the lakes. It wasn’t easy persuading his father and others to eat less, said Xiong, who graduated from UW-Madison and now works as a laboratory technician.

“With my science background, he kind of believes me more now than he did a few years ago,” Xiong said. “I can explain it to him in depth.”

No violations issued by DNR

The MEJO report says that the city, county and smaller communities covered by their state stormwater permit fell short of meeting important permit requirements, including:

  • Informing and educating the public;
  • Submitting timely, accurate and complete reports on illicit releases of pollution into stormwater and biennial reports for review by the public and elected officials;
  • Posting meeting agendas and minutes from meetings where stormwater protection practices are discussed.

Jeremy Balousek, Dane County’s water resources manager, referred questions to land and water department director Laura Hicklin, who wasn’t available. A spokeswoman for county executive Joe Parisi didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.

Hannah Mohelnitzky, a spokeswoman for the city engineering department, declined to make Greg Fries, the administrator who runs the stormwater program, available to answer questions from the Wisconsin State Journal, but she said that members of the public could contact him with their questions.

Mohelnitzky provided a recently created document that includes an account of “illicit discharge detection and elimination” program activities. The report describes a Starkweather Creek sampling program similar to one in a 2014 report, except testing results weren’t included in the recent version. The IDDE information is required to be filed with the state, but it wasn’t included when the city filed its 2018 stormwater report.

Mohelnitzky acknowledged the city hasn’t promptly posted meeting minutes. The city should hold itself to a standard of making meeting minutes available to the public every three months, she said.

Commenting on other MEJO findings of shortcomings, Mohelnitzky said the DNR hasn’t cited the city for noncompliance with its stormwater permit and it believes itself to be in compliance.

The city’s DNR stormwater permit expired five years ago. The state recently began work on issuing a renewal. A public comment period for the new permit ends May 3.

Eric Rortvedt, the DNR stormwater engineer responsible for the permit, said he didn’t renew the permit earlier because his department has been swamped with permitting requests for construction projects since the end of the recession that began in 2008.

The new permit adds required written plans for preventing runoff from government maintenance yards, and minimum standards for how often stormwater outfalls are sampled, but the testing frequency is less than what the city and county have been doing, Rortvedt said. It doesn’t address the issues raised by MEJO, he said.

Rortvedt said that “theoretically” the local governments could take steps to trace stormwater pollution back to its sources, and that the DNR could require property owners to take steps to clean up toxic spills and to limit rainwater running over contaminated equipment and land.

But the state has chosen to focus on the “broader” problem of nutrient pollution, he said. Local governments take actions such as sweeping streets and encouraging residents to prevent leaves from washing into storm sewers.

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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.

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