Dane County proposal aiming to protect against PFAS contamination moves forward

Emily Hamer | Wisconsin State Journal, Oct 14, 2021

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Starkweather Creek & Truax air base
ISAAC WASSERMAN, WISCONSIN WATCH   Starkweather/Truax – An airplane takes off near the site where Starkweather Creek exits Truax Field Air National Guard Base and flows through pipes that feed the water downstream toward Lake Monona in Madison. In 2019, the creek contained higher levels of PFOA and PFOS — two more scrutinized types of hazardous PFAS — than any other waters the Department of Natural Resources tested that year.

A proposal that seeks to find out how much power Dane County has to regulate or halt airport projects if PFAS levels are too high is making its way through the committee process.

The resolution doesn’t do anything to interfere with two major, ongoing projects at the airport — a $9 million F-35 simulation facility and an $85 million expansion of the Dane County Regional Airport’s south terminal — but it could make it clear what options lawmakers have to regulate airport construction in areas where the soil is contaminated. The measure also seeks more public reporting on PFAS levels.

The Dane County Airport Commission unanimously approved the resolution Wednesday, with a few changes. That clears a major hurdle for the proposal because two committees had previously delayed action until after members got feedback from the Airport Commission.

Sup. Yogesh Chawla, 6th District, the author of the proposal, said the county needs to make sure it has “all the tools it can” to protect residents’ drinking water, especially from the “alarming” PFAS chemicals.

PFAS compounds are toxic, manmade chemicals that don’t break down in the environment and have been shown to increase the risk of cancer and other ailments. The “forever chemicals” have been found at the airport, where firefighters have used fluorinated foams for decades. Environmental advocates worry construction could further disburse PFAS.

“If the PFAS contamination gets into our water wells and into our waterways, it’s going to be very difficult to reverse any potential damage that is done,” Chawla said, noting that there’s no good to way filter out or remediate contamination.

The resolution asks county staff to provide legal opinions on “any and all ways” the county can regulate airport activities and the work to clean up PFAS. The Airport Commission deleted language that would have asked for an opinion on how to stop construction projects if soil tests show PFAS levels that surpass what is recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Chawla said it’s not clear exactly what the county has the power to do to protect from PFAS contamination, and the legal opinion should shed some light on that.

“Going forward, we have to make sure that local lawmakers do what we can within our legal authority to protect the people who live here,” Chawla said. “We want to make sure that we don’t pollute our drinking water.”

The measure would also require public reporting on all PFAS tests and results. Public Health Madison and Dane County, along with county staff, would be directed to make a website for posting the information. Chawla said residents need access to “timely information about PFAS levels.”

The proposal is the latest iteration of a series of proposals from Chawla looking to address PFAS contamination. The previous resolutions stalled in committee, likely because they included language opposing the placement of F-35 jets in Madison.

Last year, the Air Force chose the Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing as the host of a squadron of the $90 million F-35 jets. The first jets are expected to arrive in 2023 and are set to replace the current fleet of 1980s-model F-16s.

Boosters of the squadron have touted the economic impact of up to $120 million in construction projects and dozens of new jobs associated with the jets, but those opposed have cited environmental concerns and negative impacts on neighbors, including noise.

Asked if he was frustrated that opposing the jets didn’t make it through, Chawla said he wanted to focus on “actionable” steps to help the community, which he hopes the legal opinions and public PFAS reporting will help accomplish.

With 20 co-sponsors, this newest measure — which has no mention of the F-35 jets — has enough votes to get approved by the 37-member County Board. It faces review from a few more committees before it gets to the board.

“I’m really happy to see such broad support in so many corners of Dane County for the resolution,” Chawla said.