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Madison and Dane County wait for military to test burn pits

February 24, 2019

Despite the lack of funding for a military cleanup, Madison and Dane County have declined to spend local tax dollars to speed up pollution investigations of two firefighter training areas near the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s Truax Field on the city’s North Side.

Based on decades of shifting ownership and usage, the cost of cleaning up the two sites eventually could be shared by the two local governments and the National Guard.

Last summer, all three agreed that the military would conduct an initial investigation of the sites — called burn pits — where flammable material was set on fire and then smothered with toxic PFAS foam. However, the National Guard says it doesn’t have money to pay for an investigation.

One of the burn pits, west of the base near Darwin Road, was closed in 1987 over the airport director’s concerns about environmental degradation from materials that had been dumped on the ground and burned since the 1950s or earlier. A 1989 report documented an array of hazardous chemicals in culverts and groundwater. Testing for PFAS wasn’t common at that time.

On the base itself, a 2017 preliminary assessment found heavy concentrations of PFAS in soil and groundwater. No testing has been done outside the base perimeter, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR said there’s no indication of further investigation or cleanup for the Darwin site, where stormwater drains into culverts that feed adjacent Starkweather Creek. The creek empties into Lake Monona, raising concerns about health risks for people eating fish from the lake or even farther downstream.

A second burn pit on Pearson Road was used from 1989 to 1993, the water utility said.

Mayor Paul Soglin said he didn’t favor Madison taking the lead by beginning sampling of the sites because it might obligate the city to assume costs that should be borne by others. Soglin said the known contamination under the base should be a priority.

“The burn pits represent possible PFAS release sites,” Soglin said in a statement. “While PFAS may be identified here, significant PFAS contamination in soil and shallow groundwater was already found on the base.”

Soglin’s opponent in the April election said the city, county and the military should be working together to fully and promptly investigate public health threats.

“I certainly don’t want the city to go it alone,” former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway said in an interview after emerging with Soglin from Tuesday’s primary. “I want us to collaborate and partner with all concerned. (But the) bottom line is we can’t wait and we can’t pass the buck. … We need to know what the threats are.”

County Executive Joe Parisi didn’t respond to requests for comment. Dane County Regional Airport spokesman Brent McHenry said the county has confidence in the military, and a county investigation would be redundant.

Nationally, as the military has begun to investigate PFAS pollution, heavy contamination has been found in burn pits.

Tests of groundwater near two burn pits at the Army’s Fort McCoy installation east of Tomah found concentrations of two common types of PFAS as high as 120,650 parts per trillion in one and 72,400 parts per trillion in the other, far over a federal health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for drinking water.

A 1989 Army Corps of Engineers report found that firefighting foam had been sprayed at the Darwin burn pit as many as 15 times a year by military and municipal firefighters, and that heavy metals, solvents and other hazardous substances were found in groundwater under the site in excess of government standards.

Madison environmentalist Maria Powell found the report last year while working on a federally funded study of the way pollution affects people living around Starkweather Creek. After she asked the DNR about it, the department notified the city, county and military that they could be responsible for a cleanup.

The statement issued after local, state and military representatives met on Feb. 14 downplayed potential public health risks, and included a link to an EPA announcement about its widely criticized plans for addressing PFAS.

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