Chris Hubbuch | Wisconsin State Journal, September 3, 2022
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.
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.
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.”
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.