Residents Call for Action on Polluted Wisconsin Waterways | Wisconsin News
By ISAAC WASSERMAN from Wisconsin Watch
MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) – Carnetta Galvin and Melody Homesly stood on Galvin’s porch with glasses of wine one August evening. It was Galvin’s birthday, and the laughter of best friends echoed through their corner of the brick apartment and the streets of the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin.
Across the street, tall grass surrounded a body of standing water parallel to Galvin’s apartment building before disappearing into the distance under bridges and busy streets. This is Starkweather Creek, historically fed by springs that have since disappeared or have weakened considerably. The east and west branches of the creek meander through northeast Madison, including the various neighborhoods of Darbo-Worthington and Truax, before emptying into Lake Monona.
Starkweather Creek is not a source of drinking water, but it is a critical artery and recreational habitat.
The nonprofit outlet Wisconsin Watch provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News.
Galvin, who has lived by the creek for 16 years, had no idea it contained some of Wisconsin’s most polluted water until a reporter told him. She had also not heard of PFAS, the group of man-made chemicals that raise particular concerns about the creek and Wisconsin.
Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are a national scourge and sometimes referred to as “eternal chemicals” because of the way they accumulate in the body and persist in the environment without breaking down completely. Since the 1950s, companies have used PFAS to make everything from cookware with a non-stick coating to food packaging and fire-fighting foam. Research has linked the substances to low birth weight, immune system issues, thyroid issues, certain cancers and more.
PFAS are poorly absorbed through the skin, but they are dangerous to ingest, whether by consuming contaminated water, fish, or food packaged in materials containing PFAS.
In 2019, Starkweather Creek contained higher levels of PFOA and PFOS – two more scrutinized types of PFAS – than any other water tested by the Department of Natural Resources that year. At the intersection of Fair Oaks Avenue in the creek, MNR detected PFOS levels at 270 parts per trillion and PFOA at 43 ppt.
How much PFAS is considered dangerous? It is complicated. During years of federal inaction, a few states have adopted their own PFAS regulations. Wisconsin hasn’t done it yet but is working on it. MNR has proposed updates to include a State Department of Health Services recommended limit of 20 ppt for PFOS and PFOA combined in groundwater.
The agency is also pursuing drinking water and surface water criteria for PFAS through a rule-making process that the Republican-led legislature lengthened a decade ago.
At the end of September, the Wisconsin DNR was tracking 86 known releases of PFAS statewide.
Despite the first steps Dane County has taken to tackle pollution in Starkweather Creek and engage the public on the issue, awareness of the issue remains mixed among anglers, recreational users and other residents, Wisconsin Watch found. Some say local authorities should act more urgently.
“I am disappointed and sad not to know what is affecting our health,” said Galvin.
Formed by retreating glaciers that left behind a mix of oak savannah, grasslands and nearly 4,000 acres of wetlands, the 24-square-mile Starkweather Creek watershed underwent dramatic changes in decades after European immigrants began to settle in Madison. The stream was filled, dredged, channeled, and turned into a drainage system for local farms. Later, industry, shops and homes sent sewage there.
Most of the wetlands in the watershed have been drained or filled for development. Sediment and debris suffocate the bottom and shore of the creek, and its lower portion acts as a stormwater channel for the East Side of Madison, capturing a stew of pollutants.
MNR first added Starkweather Creek to its list of degraded waters in 1998 due to low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, sediment and toxic metals. The agency has since documented deficiencies in chloride, E. coli and PFOS. But pollution frustration swirled around the creek even decades earlier.
“What’s the use of complaining?” It’s been like this for years, ”a local woman told The Cape Times in a 1967 story lamenting the putrid stench of the algae covered creek. “No one is going to do anything about it.”
More than half a century later, Public Health Madison and Dane County posted signs along the creek warning residents not to drink its water or swallow its foam because of PFAS – and to keep their own. pets away. “Many fish in this body of water cannot be safely eaten more than once a month,” the signs warn.
MNR has identified Truax Field Air National Guard Base and Dane County Regional Airport as known sources of PFAS in the creek. This is due to the chemical fire extinguisher foam used on site. MNR continues to investigate other potential sources of contamination.
Dane County Regional Airport continues to use fire-fighting foam containing PFAS, although it is exploring alternatives, Kim Jones, its manager, said during a Dane County Regional Airport community webinar Commission on PFAS in August.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to use fire-fighting foams that meet certain specifications – and contain PFAS, but Congress in 2018 ordered the agency to allow non-fluorinated foams by October 2021. The FAA will likely ask for an extension as it continues to research effective alternatives, Jones said.
The Zoom webinar in August was the committee’s first public meeting devoted to the issue, although the topic has been covered in other meetings, Jones said. This came two years after the DNR first reported the PFAS contamination and linked it to the airport. Jones said the airport plans to strengthen public engagement on PFAS and encouraged affected residents to explore PFAS information on the airport’s website.
Meanwhile, Dane County Director Joe Parisi said the county aims to secure funding and work with the airport and other polluters to clean up the watershed.
“We absolutely have to do everything we can to fix what’s on our property,” he told Wisconsin Watch. “We cannot assume that the only PFAS entering Starkweather is from the airport. It’s a highly industrial area there. I think it’s important that the DNR… make a full effort to examine all potential sources.
In addition to posting warning signs, the county held public meetings about the contamination and sent letters to homes around Starkweather Creek.
At the state level, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers lobbied to strengthen the state of Wisconsin’s response to PFAS, but encountered Republican resistance. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee removed several Evers proposals from this year’s state budget, including measures to regulate PFAS, add 11 DNR scientists focused on contamination, and create a community grants program. fighting against pollution.
Homesly says those with the power to clean the creek should step into the shoes of those who live around it.
“Treat it the way they would treat it if it was in their neighborhood, in their family and their children’s health,” Homesly said. “Something must be done immediately. “
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