Article courtesy of Kathi Matthews-Risley, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism| November 23, 2015 | PostCresent| Shared as educational material
Costs, Water Pollution Remain at Closed Plant: Army spends millions on cleanup and to provide safe water for residents around Baraboo.
SAUK CITY – Mary Jane Koch stopped drinking the water in her home 11 years ago, shortly after an industrial compound turned up in the well supplying drinking water to her home.
The source of the contamination: the now-closed Badger Army Ammunition Plant.
Badger was a military installation built in 1942 on more than 7,000 acres near Baraboo. The plant was owned and operated by the U.S. government to produce smokeless gunpowder for rockets, cannons and small arms used in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. It operated on and off for 33 years.
During its operation, the plant pumped excess chemicals and millions of gallons of wastewater into Lake Wisconsin and burned toxic substances in large pits on the site, leaving the soil, surface and groundwater contaminated with a dangerous stew of chemicals, including some known or likely to cause cancer.
Now, 400 monitoring wells dot the site, and the Army has spent $125 million cleaning up contaminated soil and water. While the land is being redeveloped for recreation, dairy research and tribal uses, the groundwater under the Badger site remains polluted.
The Army is working on a plan to install a water system for about 400 households to replace tainted groundwater as the source of drinking water in this scenic region about 30 miles northwest of Madison.
Long history of pollution
Koch was surprised when she heard that the Army had found something in her well in 2004. She did not know her well had been tested.
The letter she received said that concentrations of ethyl ether, a chemical used in production of smokeless gunpowder, had been detected in her well at 17 parts per million. The state groundwater enforcement standard is 1 part per million for ethyl ether, a little-studied chemical that can cause alcohol-like effects at high doses.
The Army delivered five-gallon jugs of water to her home the next day but discontinued the delivery two months later when tests showed no presence of ethyl ether.
To this day, Koch cooks with and drinks only bottled water at home. She does not trust the water from her well. Koch grew up near Badger and has seen the effects of the unchecked pollution firsthand.
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In 1961, when she was a teenager, Koch’s family bought a summer cottage — about a mile and a half north of her current home — across from the Badger plant on Lake Wisconsin. She remembers the thick, sticky mud in the water.
“When we first moved in … we couldn’t swim out in front of the cottage,” she said. “We didn’t know what this muck was all about. I mean, it was like if you went down in it you were stuck.”
Koch also recounted a story from her older brother about a day in the early 1980s when his two boys jumped into the water near the family cottage. They emerged from the water with silver residue all over their bodies.
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According to a 2006 article written by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, about 25 million gallons of wastewater per day was dumped into Gruber’s Grove Bay in Lake Wisconsin near the Koch cottage when Badger was in full production. That wastewater contained mercury and other metals.
The Army eventually dredged Gruber’s Grove Bay in 2001 and again in 2006.
The 2006 effort produced 500 pounds of mercury, 12,000 pounds of copper, 16,000 pounds of zinc and 36,000 pounds of lead among the 150,000 cubic yards of sediment removed from the bay, the DNR reported.
Tainted water, troubled mind
Koch and her husband moved away from the Sauk Prairie area for a time in the early 1970s — not because of the contamination, but so he could finish school and start his career. They came back to the area to raise a family.
They built a home in 1977 north of the Prairie du Sac Dam on the Wisconsin River, a mile and a half south of the cottage. They did not know about the extensive groundwater contamination from Badger.
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Koch read about the tainted water years later in the Sauk Prairie Star. It was 1990, and the Army reported dangerous chemicals had been detected in residential wells in a subdivision south of Badger near her home. The news brought her to tears.
In 2004, the Kochs were notified by the Army that ethyl ether was detected in their well. She felt like her nightmare had begun all over again. Koch started attending public meetings held by the Army and the DNR about the groundwater cleanup at Badger.
At one of the meetings she remembers saying to the representatives from the Army: “Why were we ever allowed to build there if you guys knew about this?”
Soil and groundwater polluted
In 1977, the same year that Koch and her husband built their house, the Army began to assess the environmental damage at Badger. It started looking at treatment options for cleaning up the contamination found in multiple areas at the site, where for three decades the military had burned excess chemicals and waste in open pits.
A soil vapor extraction system was installed to remove chemicals in waste pits. Some 1,600 pounds of volatile organic compounds were removed, and 2,280 cubic yards of soil were dug up, moved off site and incinerated.
At another site, chemicals were burned along with trash, construction rubble and coal ash from the power plant at Badger. About 4,260 cubic yards were excavated from that area and incinerated off-site.
Yet, even with this elaborate treatment system in place, highly dangerous compounds including dinitrotoluene (DNT), carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene (TCE) made their way into the groundwater.
In fact, since well monitoring began at Badger in the early 1980s, varying levels of these three chemicals have been detected in groundwater at the site and in private wells south and southeast of the site.
Environmental data produced for the Army in 2011 showed that levels of DNT, which can affect the central nervous system and blood; carbon tetrachloride, a probable human carcinogen; and TCE, a known carcinogen with a wide array of other harmful health effects, have diminished over time.
However, the latest environmental monitoring data from November 2014 found that levels of all three contaminants continue to exceed Wisconsin groundwater enforcement standards in a number of wells on or near the Badger site.
Will Myers, the DNR’s team leader for environmental remediation at Badger, was asked what might cause such high levels after 25 years of cleanup.
Myers said “evaluating contaminated groundwater can be difficult” because contaminant levels can “fluctuate for many reasons” since groundwater is a “very dynamic system.” Changing elevation levels and flows can cause “spikes” in contaminant levels, he said.
Studies refute cancer concerns
Residents living near Badger have long been concerned about the cancer risks associated with exposure to contaminated groundwater used for drinking.
In response to those concerns, state health officials conducted a cancer rate review in 1990 of the communities near Badger. It concluded that between 1980 and 1988, residents did not experience “statistically higher than expected” cancer deaths in areas where contaminants were detected in private wells.
The study also looked at cancer mortality rates between 1960 and 1988. That survey for 11 types of cancer concluded residents living near Badger had cancer mortality rates similar to rates of residents in other parts of the state.
Koch is not reassured by these health assessments.
“The problem with some of the wells they’ve been testing is there will be three different chemicals that were found. … Some of them have two to three chemicals but not at levels (higher than the state enforcement standards) so they don’t think it’s a problem. No one can give us an answer as to what kind of chemical cocktail that’s making.”
Myers, in response to questions posed by Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, said residents need not be concerned. The environmental nonprofit, based in Merrimac, has pushed for monitoring and remediation at the site for years.
“For both soil and groundwater at Badger, the concentrations are low, there is very limited interaction between compounds, and the standards are very conservative,” Myers wrote.
But state epidemiologist Dr. Henry Anderson said there is uncertainty — and no health standards — regarding the cumulative effect of multiple chemicals in the groundwater.
Koch has known a number of families living near Badger that have been affected by cancer. It is this anecdotal evidence that connects the dots for her.
Laura Olah, executive director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, also has asked regulators to set health advisory levels for products that result from the breakdown of the explosive compound DNT, 16 of which have been detected in the groundwater at Badger. Olah said some of the products can be more harmful than the original contaminant.
Olah is also concerned that additives such as 1,4-dioxane, a compound used to stabilize TCE, are not being monitored at the site. The DNR has said it does not monitor for the compound. The EPA found after a multi-year scientific review of the health risks that 1,4-dioxane “can cause cancer or increase the incidence of cancer when people are exposed to relatively low levels for extended periods of time.”
Said Olah: “WDNR reports that the Army has not monitored groundwater for 1,4-dioxane, so there is no data to show whether or not it is present here. This is surprising given it is a probable carcinogen that is mobile in the environment and has not been shown to readily biodegrade.”
Clean water on the way?
Anderson said that given the concerns and uncertainties, state health officials believe the best course of action is to keep people from using water from residential wells near Badger.
The Army has proposed spending about $40 million to build a municipal drinking water system to serve some 400 properties in the Sauk County towns of Merrimac, Sumpter and Prairie du Sac plus 150 undeveloped residential lots. The price tag includes the cost of operating the system for the first five years and 20 years of groundwater monitoring in and around Badger. Customers would pay for the operation after five years.
Town of Merrimac resident Gene Franks believes a new water system is the only way to guarantee residents’ drinking water will be safe.
Franks is co-founder of Citizens for Practical Water Solutions, which pushed for formation of the new system. The group’s other founder, Roger Heidenreich, said many residents support the project — but not all. Some whose private wells are not tainted do not want to pay for water from a public water system — especially one that could later need costly upgrades or repairs, Heidenreich said.
And although the Merrimac Town Board approved formation of the water district in May, the Army still must approve the funding, which would trigger another round of review and negotiation that could take up to a year.
Residents at a March meeting in Sauk City also expressed concern about the plan to reduce monitoring at Badger over the next 20 years, which would end in 2032 unless contaminants continue to be found.
Town of Merrimac Administrator Tim McCumber is cautiously optimistic the new system will solve his community’s drinking water problem. McCumber mainly wants to make sure the system can grow as the community grows and not become a financial burden to local residents.
For Mary Jane Koch, the new water system offers some hope. She was overjoyed when she got the phone call that the Army was going to provide a clean source of water for families around Badger. Koch will worry less about the drinking water in her neighborhood once the system is in place.
But she said the notion that the groundwater at Badger is contaminated, and may be for years to come, will always be in the back of her mind.
That tempers her joy.
The story was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Center and UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Safeguarding your drinking water: What you can do
Wisconsin residents can take a number of steps to make sure their drinking water is safe. Here are a few suggestions:
- If you live in one of the 940,000 households in Wisconsin that rely on a private well, have your water tested or test it yourself. The state Department of Natural Resources recommends getting your well tested once a year for coliform bacteria and any time you notice a change in how your water looks, smells or tastes. Check with your county health department on what contaminants may be found in your area and for which you might also want to test.
- You can get more information on testing from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, including details on how to obtain testing kits and the costs of various tests. The test for coliform bacteria, for example, costs $29, as do the tests for lead and nitrate.
- For those using municipal water, get the consumer confidence report from your local water utility. Or you can access the reports on the DNR’s database of public water systems. Also, find out if your utility disinfects for viruses or uses corrosion control to help keep lead out of pipes.
- If your home was built before 1984, consider having it assessed for lead in the water. While pre-1950 homes often have lead service pipes, some homes built before 1984 may have lead solder on the pipes or fixtures that contain lead. Consult the DNR website for safer ways to use water that may contain lead.
- Consider a filter for your water. But make sure that the filter you choose is effective for removing the specific contaminants that are in your water. The University of Wisconsin-Extension website has advice on which to choose.
– Ron Seely
About our Failure at the Faucet series
Failure at the Faucet is part of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s ongoing Water Watch Wisconsin project, which examines state water quality and supply issues.
The series was produced for The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Center and students and faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The investigation included reviewing dozens of studies, interviewing many of the state’s foremost water quality scientists and scouring the state to find homeowners who cannot do something most of us take for granted — cup their hand under the kitchen tap and take a long, cool drink of water.
The Confluence was supported by a grant managed by the Online News Association and funded by the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.
Katy Culver, assistant professor in the journalism school, coordinated The Confluence. Ron Seely, a Center editor and reporter, was project editor.
The investigative reporting class that participated in Failure at the Faucet was taught by Deborah Blum, a former UW-Madison journalism professor and now director of the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Students in the class were Rachael Lallensack, Gabrielle Menard, Tierney King, Silke Schmidt, Kathi Matthews-Risley, Jane Roberts, Mary Kate McCoy, Elise Bayer and Fern Schultz.