Residents frustrated by continued delays in Dane County airport PFAS cleanup
Starkweather Creek empties into Lake Monona at Olbrich Park in Madison. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
Samuel Godfrey was spending one of the last afternoons of his summer fishing off the pier where Starkweather Creek dumps into Lake Monona at Olbrich Park in Madison. The 15-year-old had been there for hours when he finally hooked a pike.
Godfrey released the fish right away. Having grown up fishing the waters in and around Madison and Monona, he knows the water is too polluted with cancer-causing “forever chemicals” known as PFAS to keep anything he catches.
“They need to do something about this,” he says. “They should’ve done something a long time ago.”
Ten-thousand times the safe limit
In 2019, Starkweather Creek was one of the most polluted waterways in Wisconsin. Tests showed it contained higher levels of PFOA and PFOS, two common types of PFAS, than any other waters the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) tested that year. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially designated PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances.”
PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, can come from non-stick cookware, food packaging and — most relevant to the creek — foam used to fight fires. PFAS don’t break down in the environment or the body and can cause a number of health problems.
The creek flows near the Dane County Regional Airport and Truax Field Air National Guard Base, where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used for years. When the water was tested in 2019, after decades of the foam being used to put out fires on the runways, the DNR detected levels of PFOS at 270 parts per trillion and PFOA at 43 ppt at the creek’s crossing with Fair Oaks Avenue.
Earlier this summer, the EPA released new guidelines for the amount of PFOS or PFOA that can be present in drinking water before it is unsafe to consume, setting the limit at 0.02 ppt for PFOS and 0.004 ppt for PFOA. That means the amount of PFOS in Starkweather Creek is 13,500 times greater than what is considered safe and the amount of PFOA is more than 10,000 times greater.
“The PFAS is underground, slowly leaching out into the groundwater all the time,” says Lance Green, co-chair of the Friends of Starkweather Creek. “It’s a continual source of pollution to the creek, every day, every hour, for decades now. It’s at thousands of parts per trillion by the airport, it’s at hundreds in the creek. People are eating the fish every day from Lake Monona. It’s an environmental justice issue that Madison is not recognizing.”
The spread of PFAS across Madison’s east side through the creek led the city’s water utility to shut down a well about a mile from the airport in 2019.
An investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has identified Dane County, the City of Madison and the Wisconsin Air National Guard as the parties responsible for the PFAS contamination in the creek.
Even though PFAS have been leaching into the waterways around the airport for years, and it’s been three years since the DNR identified the groups responsible, nearby residents remain frustrated by how little has been done to even stop the continued contamination of the creek, much less clean up what’s already there.
“Normally when you’ve got a spill and cleanup situation, it doesn’t take this many years to get to where you’re sucking the pollution up,” says Green.
The Air National Guard is currently in the process of a remedial investigation into the extent of the PFAS problem at Truax Field, which will eventually lead to a remedy proposed by the EPA — though this process can take decades.
Last year, the City of Madison Water Utility conducted a study to determine if it can treat the water and reopen the well that it closed in 2019. This year the utility began working with a consultant to design treatment plans for the well.
Despite the slow progress from the city and the Air National Guard, residents and activists are more troubled by the actions of Dane County — which they see as “dithering” about and wasting time on impractical and useless solutions while the pollution gets worse.
The county has tried an experimental pilot program to mitigate the amount of PFAS entering the creek. The BAM Boom system uses a system of booms and “bioavailable absorbent media” to treat the stormwater draining into the creek.
A field study of this system found that the amount of chemicals removed from the stormwater is extremely variable, but that the typical PFOS removal was around 18% and typical PFOA removal around 4%. Last year, the DNR said that the technology had failed.
This year, the county has begun fighting the PFAS problem in court. In June, the county filed a lawsuit against the DNR, opposing the agency’s permit requirement for the county to continue monitoring the amount of PFAS in the stormwater draining into the creek. In July, the county filed a lawsuit against dozens of companies that manufacture firefighting foam, in an attempt to cover the costs of cleanup. The lawsuit, which has been merged into a federal class action suit, alleges that the companies knew their products were harmful and would not break down once released into the environment.
Frustrations with the county
Critics contend the county is taking the wrong approach to the problem.
“Dane County has gotten an attorney, tried to sue the state, gotten into a lawsuit that’s probably going to take decades to come to completion,” says Michael Farin, a chemical engineer who lives near the creek. “They’re willing to spend money on lawyers. They’ve had a couple pilot treatments. They did not follow any of the generally recognized engineering best practices and it pretty much completely failed. They’re willing to spend very small amounts of money on litigation and experimental treatments, not put funding into anything that would clean it up.”
In January 2021, the DNR directed the responsible parties to come up with an interim plan to prevent contamination of the creek. In April, the county proposed a plan that included replacing stormwater pipes around the airport that are leaking or broken; keeping the BAM system in place and further testing the creek to determine how PFAS are moving out from the airport.
The DNR approved the plan in April, which by fixing the broken or leaking pipes would prevent PFAS from entering the creek through the stormwater system.
“Locate the specific areas where PFAS contaminated groundwater is entering the stormwater pipes through leaky/broken pipes, loose joints, etc,” the approved plan states. “Once identified, these areas will be remediated to stop the infiltration through techniques such as re-lining the pipe, replacing/repairing broken pipes, grouting leaking joints, and other remedial measures as needed.”
But in November, the county said in a letter to the DNR that the work to replace these pipes would be delayed until 2022. This June, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that the project was still on hold.
“The leaky storm sewers are right in the middle of the plume coming out of the air national guard test areas,” Farin says. “Those seem to be the primary hotspots. That water is able to leak right into their storm sewers. Even if they didn’t do all the storm sewers all at once, they could do the ones that are most heavily contaminated.”
Michael Riechers, a spokesman for the Dane County Regional Airport, says that the project was delayed because the first time the county put the project up for bids, they all came back too high. Earlier this year the county secured a contractor and a work should begin by mid-September or early October, he says.
Even as the work on the replacement pipes inches closer to starting, Riechers says the county has several pilot programs in effect to clean the pollution and is dedicated to the problem.
“We are committed to remediating the PFAS at the airport, but the research on PFAS cleanup has not caught up with the problem yet, and that is one of the reasons the airport is working on numerous pilot programs,” he says.
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