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Hot Potato: PFAS Forever Chemicals in Madison

Hot potato: PFAS contamination lingers at burn pits as city, county, National Guard contest responsibility

“More than four years after the state Department of Natural Resources warned of toxic “forever” chemicals at former firefighter training sites near the Madison airport, city, county and state officials have yet to begin cleanup amid disputes over who is responsible.

In June 2018, the DNR notified Dane County, the city of Madison and the Wisconsin Air National Guard they may be responsible for PFAS contamination at the sites, which were known as “burn pits” used for firefighter training between the 1950s and 1980s.

Tests of shallow groundwater at the sites found two PFAS compounds at levels thousands of times higher than state standards for drinking water or groundwater, and millions of times what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for drinking water.

The sites on Darwin Road and Pearson Street both drain into Starkweather Creek, which flows into Lake Monona, where health officials have warned anglers to limit consumption of fish because of the chemicals, which have been linked to illnesses including high blood pressure, low birth weight, developmental delays and most recently liver cancer.

The DNR has also ordered the city, county and National Guard to clean up PFAS from other parts of the airport, which is home to Truax Field.



For years, the city and county have deferred to the National Guard, which is investigating PFAS contamination under the federal Superfund law, a process that could take a decade for actual cleanup work to begin.

But when the National Guard Bureau submitted a final plan last spring, the burn pits were not included because the bureau said it was not solely responsible.

Now the DNR is again asking the city, county and Wisconsin National Guard to further investigate the site and determine what, if any, cleanup is required.

‘Hot potato’

The delays come as industry groups have challenged the DNR’s authority to require cleanup of PFAS. A Waukesha County judge ruled in April that the agency must first go through a 2½-year rulemaking process to list the chemicals as hazardous substances, though his order is on hold while under appeal.

Maria Powell, founder of the Madison Environmental Justice Organization, which helped bring the burn pit pollution to light, said city, county and military leaders have been playing “hot potato” with the burn pits since pollution was first documented in the 1980s.

Powell said it would be “almost comical” if not for the “complete disregard” for people — many of them low-income people of color — who live downstream and eat the contaminated fish.

“It’s not funny,” she said. “It’s criminal.”

Long practice

The Darwin Road site was used from 1953 until 1987 to train firefighters with the National Guard, city of Madison, and Dane County, as well as volunteer fire departments, according to a 1989 Corps of Engineers report.

Jet fuel, kerosene and other flammable liquids would be spilled on the ground, set on fire and then extinguished. The report documented an array of hazardous chemicals in the groundwater, though there were no tests for PFAS.

A former firefighter training area, known as a burn pit, on Pearson Street is one of two sites near the Dane County Regional Airport with high levels of PFAS. Both sites drain into Starkweather Creek, which flows into Lake Monona, where anglers have been warned to limit consumption of fish because of contamination.
JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL

 

A second burn pit on Pearson Road was used by various fire departments starting in the late 1980s.

In 2018, the DNR notified the city, county and Guard that the sites were likely contaminated with PFAS and requested an investigation.

DNR spokesperson Sarah Hoye said the agency “didn’t have actual soil or groundwater data from the fire training areas demonstrating a release of a hazardous substance,” which it needs to require a cleanup.

In 2020, an environmental contractor found combined levels of two chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — at more than 68,000 parts per trillion in groundwater at the Darwin Road site and in excess of 20,000 ppt at the Pearson Street site. While Wisconsin does not regulate PFAS in groundwater, the standards for surface water is 8 ppt for PFOS and 95 ppt for PFOA.

City’s stance

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway told the DNR in 2019 that the city should not be responsible for the burn pits, but the DNR maintains that the city provided firefighting services for Truax Field and owned the Darwin Road site until 1974, when the federal government required the use of PFAS foams at military bases.

In March the City Council approved an agreement with the county and Guard to split the cost of a $30,000 investigation — not into the extent of PFAS contamination but “historical PFAS use” at the training areas.

According to the resolution, “a more complete understanding about the historical use of PFAS-containing firefighting materials at the Airport, including at and near the Burn Pits, will be helpful to the parties.”

Rhodes-Conway’s chief of staff, Mary Bottari, said the city is not contesting its responsibility for the site, though its share “has yet to be determined.”

“The city would still like to ultimately see a complete picture of the historical PFAS use at the airport, including at the two firefighting training areas, which a historical investigation could help develop,” Bottari said. “We do know, for example, that other local fire departments trained at the facilities. If we are able to identify those parties, they can help build a complete picture of historic use on the site.”

A former firefighter training area, known as a burn pit, on Darwin Road is one of two sites near the Dane County Regional Airport with high levels of PFAS. Both sites drain into Starkweather Creek, which flows into Lake Monona, where anglers have been warned to limit consumption of fish because of contamination.
CHRIS HUBBUCH, STATE JOURNAL

It’s not clear when that investigation began or how long it will take.

Bottari said it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for city staff to comment on cleanup plans because the land is owned by the county, which will play the “lead role.”

Update pending

County officials declined to be interviewed about the cleanup plan.

In a written statement, airport spokesperson Michael Riechers said the city, county and Guard are developing “a plan to further investigate the firefighting training areas that will incorporate several facets including investigative efforts already completed and the pilot projects currently underway at the airport.”

Riechers said the county intends to update the DNR next week.

The state Department of Natural Resources has asked the city of Madison, Dane County and the Wisconsin National Guard to clean up firefighter training areas on Pearson Street, above, and Darwin Road that are contaminated with toxic PFAS chemicals.
JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL

Maj. Leslie Westmont, a spokesperson for the Air National Guard, referred questions about the burn pits to the National Guard Bureau, the federal agency that excluded them from its cleanup plan for the rest of the base.

The National Guard Bureau did not respond to questions.

Federal process

The bureau is overseeing the base cleanup under the federal Superfund law, a process that could take up to a decade for actual cleanup to begin.

The military has spent about $2 million so far investigating the extent of PFAS contamination at the base and expects the next phase of the investigation will cost almost $2 million more.

Lance Green, co-chair of the Friends of Starkweather Creek and a member of the Sustainable Madison Committee, said he’s been frustrated for years by the lack of action.

“PFAS is fairly new, but everybody knows about sucking the water out of the ground and getting the PFAS out,” Green said. “We need stronger action now to start lowering the contamination. That’s simple.”

DNR spokesperson Sarah Hoye said there’s not enough data to determine if the pollutants have spread from the site, but environmental watchdogs say there’s no reason to believe the highly-mobile chemicals would stay put.

“It can only spread,” Green said. “That’s the thing it does: spread.”

Green said it will take years to reduce PFAS levels in the lakes and fish, but only if the city, county and Guard take immediate action to eliminate the source.

“It continues to move out and it continues to get fish full of PFAS,” he said.

The city council has approved spending $425,000 on a treatment system for one East Side well that was shut down in 2019 because of PFAS contamination, though the Madison Water Utility contended that Truax Field — not the burn pits — is the likely source of that contamination.


Discarded deadlines let polluted plume from military base spread unchecked | Local Government | madison.com


County sues

Earlier this year Dane County sued foam manufacturers in an attempt to recover “substantial costs” associated with cleanup of the airport.

The suit claims the defendants knew — or should have known — that using the foam, required by the Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration, would release PFAS to the air, soil and groundwater.

The lawsuit notes the chemicals, which can damage the liver, kidneys and nervous system, spread quickly in the environment, “contaminating soil, groundwater, and surface water” and are “readily absorbed in animal and human tissues.”

In emails with the county’s outside attorney, obtained through an open records request, assistant corporation counsel Amy Tutwiler discusses formulating media “talking points” for “how to respond to the concern that the health effects alleged in the complaint suggest pfas remediation should be occurring at a more rapid pace.”

Those talking points were not provided in response to the records request.


With PFAS cleanup years in the future, National Guard says its moving ‘quickly’ on Truax investigation | Science & Environment | madison.com


The county has since sued the DNR in an effort to strike conditions included in the airport’s stormwater permit intended to measure and limit PFAS in water that drains into Starkweather Creek.

The county contends the conditions are illegal because the DNR has already required cleanup under the remediation program and that they would be too costly.

County officials have said they did not know what the additional testing would cost, but according to documents obtained through an open records request it would be about $8,000 a year.

That case is on hold while the DNR conducts an internal review of the permit.”


More on PFAS Forever Chemicals

  1. Home – Madison Environmental Justice (mejo.us)
  2. About 3 — Military Poisons
  3. For decades, polluters knew PFAS chemicals were dangerous but hid risks from public | Environmental Working Group (ewg.org)

Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs

How the U. S. fails its military veterans – WORT-FM 89.9 (wortfm.org)

In their newly release book, “Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs“, authors Steve Early, Suzanne Gordon, and Jasper Craven discuss many of the obstacles to veterans in the United States.

Faced with efforts on both sides of the aisle to privatize military healthcare, bogus claims by pseudo-veteran-support groups funded by the Koch brothers to undermine the VA medical system, and a congress which pours money into funding the active military but leaves veterans to fight for pennies, the recruitment claims promising education and healthcare for returned military personnel are failing veterans.

The book

Duke University Press – Our Veterans (dukeupress.edu)

Afghan People and the Afghan Papers

Part of the reason for this web post is that the Wisconsin Veterans Museum recently did a program on the Afghan Papers.  Wisconsin Veterans Museum – Every Veteran is a Story (wisvetsmuseum.com)

“The Afghanistan Papers are filled with over 300 people detailing the systematic failure of the military to take any responsibility and blaming the “corruption” of the Afghanistan government, all the while revealing the massive corruption and lies that the U.S. is perpetuating. While military commanders bemoaned Afghan leaders enriching themselves off American tax dollars, those self same commanders were climbing government ranks, earning promotions for promoting endless war.”

Veterans Demand Accountability for Afghanistan Papers

Veterans For Peace and About Face: Veterans Against the Wargathered veterans who  served in the U.S. War in Afghanistan to write the above statement.
 


“When the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan kicked into high gear, the U.S. started evacuating at-risk Afghans to the United States on parole, giving them only temporary protections with no pathway to citizenship. Countless others got left behind. A large coalition of Afghan Americans, immigration advocates, and veterans got together to start pushing Congress for legislation that would give Afghans lasting protections and a pathway to citizenship, as well as hold the Biden administration accountable to ensure other vulnerable and at-risk Afghans could find their way to safety in the U.S. This type of large-scale adjustment of status would match historic precedent, as the U.S. has done this previously for Cambodian, Vietnamese, Cuban and Iraqi Kurds.

On August 11th, the Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA) got a bipartisan introduction in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is our hope to ensure passage as Congress reconvenes from its summer recess and find enough support to receive 60 votes in the Senate and a simple majority vote in the House.

The United States made a promise. Now, it must live up to its word. But we need your help to ensure we hold our elected officials accountable.

https://www.weareafghans.org/afghan-adjustment-act

In Solidarity,

Arash Azizzada

Afghan American Community Organizer
& Co-Director of Afghans For A Better Tomorrow


 

 

The Afghanistan Papers | Book by Craig Whitlock, The Washington Post | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster (simonandschuster.com)


 

Call to unfreeze aid to Afghanistan – WORT-FM 89.9 (wortfm.org)

 


U.S. officials misled the public about the war in Afghanistan, confidential documents reveal – Washington Post

“A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.

With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting…”

More stories

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS

Part 1: At war with the truth


“The papers were brought back into discussion after the 2021 Summer Offensive of the Taliban and the fall of Kabul. Debates around the efficiency of U.S. state-building efforts were brought into question, with contrast in what the U.S. forces originally revealed and thought versus what actually occurred. U.S. officials and leaders such as President Joe Biden were heavily criticised for their actions during the withdraw and the public narrative that was being told throughout August and September of 2021…”

Afghanistan Papers – Wikipedia


 

Symposium: Was withdrawing from Afghanistan the right thing to do? – Responsible Statecraft
Symposium: Was withdrawing from Afghanistan the right thing to do? Responsible Statecraft asked more than 20 Afghan and American scholars, journalists, veterans & advocates.

8/23 Vigil Against Drone Murder ~ Tues @3pm ~ Volk Field Military Base

DRONES KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE

VIGIL AGAINST THE DRONES

OUTSIDE THE GATES OF VOLK FIELD

TUESDAY AUGUST 23, 2022      3:004:30 pm

We need YOU there

 

Dear Friends,

Please join us as we vigil against drone warfare at Volk Field on August 23.

The vigil at Volk Field is a legal vigil where we will be on public property.  As always, it will be a solemn vigil, remembering the victims of US government drone attacks.

DIRECTIONS – To get to the vigil, take the Camp Douglas exit off Interstate 90/94 between Mauston and Tomah.  When you exit take County Rd. C to the northeast.  You will see the base straight ahead, but follow County Rd. C to the right and within a few blocks is a picnic wayside where you can park.  The wayside is now open for the summer and bathrooms are available there.

 

THE VIGIL – We will gather at the wayside around 3:15 for introductions and to review the plan for the vigil, and then process together to the gates of the base where we will hold a solemn vigil for one hour to remember those killed by drones.  Participants can stand in silence or read poems and stories about the effects of drone warfare.  It is important that the voices of the victims be brought to the gates of Volk Field.

Bring posters if you can.

A WORD ABOUT THE WEATHER – If you have questions about the vigil because of the weather, please make sure to call Joy at 608 239-4327 or Bonnie at 608-256-5088 for an update.

CARPOOLING –  If you are interested in carpooling to Volk Field from Madison, please contact Bonnie at 608-256-5088.

We hope to see you at the vigil on Tuesday August 23.  If you can’t come this time, mark your calendar.  We usually vigil on the 4th Tuesday of every month.  If you have any questions please call or email Joy at 608 239-4327 or joyfirst5@gmail.com or Bonnie at 608-256-5088 or blb24@earthlink.net .

Peace,

Joy and Bonnie

Wisconsin Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars