Superfund will not protect us from the military’s toxic pollution – Maria Powell

Cap Times  |  Mar 11, 2020  | Maria Powell, executive director, Midwest Environmental Justice Organization


Fire-fighters applying foam to a fire.

The final environmental impact statement (EIS) on basing F-35 fighter jets at Madison’s Truax Field states that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund), will guide PFAS investigations and cleanups at the base.

Does this mean PFAS will be thoroughly investigated and remediated at Truax? Based on history, probably not.

This is nothing new. Truax Field has been regulated under CERCLA since 1987 when the base was identified under the Department of Defense’s Installation Restoration Program (IRP), created to “identify and fully evaluate suspected problems associated with past hazardous waste disposal and/or spill sites on DoD installations” and “control hazards to human health, welfare, and the environment.”

Under the “Department State Memorandum of Agreement” (DSMOA), which remains in place today, Wisconsin agreed to “accept DoD prioritization of CERCLA/IRP sites as a condition to receiving money for oversight and document review” at these sites. Wisconsin environmental laws still apply.

Though it could lead to some funding, the DSMOA is no panacea. Beginning in 1989, many regulated hazardous chemicals, including PCE, TCE, PAHs, PCBs, petroleum compounds, metals, and more, were documented at Truax Field. As these 1995 DNR-Air National Guard meeting minutes illustrate, tense political negotiations between the Department of Natural Resources and the military often resulted in inadequate investigations and remediation of these chemicals, sometimes delayed for years or decades — or not done at all.

In February 2018, for a city F-35 listening session, the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization outlined numerous gaps in Truax Field CERCLA investigations begun in 1987. For instance, military consultants who led investigations dismissed most ecological and human health risks based on inadequate testing. Contradicting their own statements and maps, consultants repeatedly concluded over the years that there is no surface water proximate to the base — a laughably false statement — so they didn’t test contaminants draining to Starkweather Creek, which runs through the base. Wisconsin NR 716, which requires assessing migration pathways, and horizontal and vertical extents of contamination, was ignored. Yet in 2012, investigations and cleanup were deemed complete by the National Guard, with the DNR’s approval.

Here’s another example. After reviewing a 1989 report documenting many toxic contaminants at Truax Field, in 1990 the DNR asked the National Guard who was responsible to complete investigations at a heavily contaminated “burn area” originally constructed in the 1950s by the DoD right next to Starkweather Creek on Dane County Airport land. Over 30 years later, this burn pit has not been tested or remediated.

As they did last year, the city, county and military — who all used the burn pits since the 1950s — continue to bicker over who is responsible, after receiving a responsible party letter naming all of them from the DNR on Oct. 7, 2019. Dane County has finally initiated limited testing at the burn pits, but only for PFAS, not the plethora of other chemicals likely present and leaching into Starkweather Creek. On Feb. 6, the DNR countered city claims that it is not responsible.

Meanwhile, the Madison community has been in the dark about Truax Field contamination, despite federal laws requiring the Air National Guard to engage the public. The 1987 National Guard Bureau letter on the initiation of the IRP program said: “Current environmental laws and NGB policy require that the entire process be conducted in an open atmosphere. This necessitates Congressional drops at each stage of the process and local news releases to keep the public informed.” In 1994 the National Guard Bureau asked the Air National Guard to develop a “community relations plan,” required under CERCLA. There is no evidence that any news releases or community engagement ever happened.

What about local and state agencies? The DNR never asked the National Guard to engage the community under Wisconsin law NR 714. Neither the city nor county — which owns most of the land under the base — used existing stormwater and other authorities to assess control toxic contaminants spewing into municipal stormwater drains from the base into Starkweather Creek, or educated and engaged the community about these pollutants.

Limited soil and groundwater PFAS testing was only first done at the base in late 2017, showing up to 46,000 ppt of just six PFAS compounds; many more are present but unmeasured. Since these results were released in spring 2018, comprehensive investigations of the horizontal and vertical extents of the PFAS contamination, and off-base migration pathways, have not been done — again violating NR 716. DNR finally issued the Wisconsin Air National Guard a notice of violation on Oct. 31, 2019.

In summer and fall 2019, with funding that was largely a result of MEJO advocacy in 2018, water and fish were finally tested in Starkweather Creek. Results shared in publicly January showed up to over 8,800 ppt PFAS in creek water and up to 180,000 ppt in fish.

What will be done to prevent future PFAS releases into the creek, especially during planned F-35 construction projects? Will protective federal standards, guidelines or regulations apply? Not likely, especially in a Trump administration.

For one, PFAS is not currently listed as a hazardous substance under CERCLA — and industries and wastewater utility lobbyists are actively fighting this designation in Washington.

Further, not reassuringly, the F-35 final EIS points to a U.S. Air Force guidance with EPA’s inadequate, unprotective 70 ppt “Lifetime Health Advisory” (for only PFOA and PFOS) as a trigger for contaminated groundwater management. In June 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services proposed a much more protective 20 ppt groundwater standard for these two compounds — and some scientific experts think these standards should be much lower to be adequately protective.

On the state level, a Feb. 21 Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs letter to Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway assured that the National Guard will use “environmentally-friendly” foams — a disingenuous assurance, given that PFAS-based foams are required at all U.S. airports and military bases.



PFAS is also currently unregulated in Wisconsin; rules are under development but will take years to be finally promulgated. The DNR pointed out in its Oct. 30, 2019 letter for the draft EIS that, in the meantime, the agency has the authority to set more protective site-specific standards for PFAS investigations and cleanups at the base.

However, as in the past, the DNR will negotiate these standards with the military, with CERCLA and DSMOA playing roles in decisions. The Truax history described here — and the fact that PFAS is not listed as a hazardous substance under CERCLA — provide ample reasons to question whether standards applied and cleanup actions under these arrangements will be adequately protective of human health and the environment.

Whether or not F-35s come to Madison, will our local, state and federal elected officials insist that the National Guard fully comply with the most protective health and environmental regulations and standards — and comprehensively investigate and clean up the base? Will Madison and Dane County officials use all available authorities to prevent more toxic chemicals from entering Starkweather Creek via storm drains and other pathways? Will these agencies and officials inform — and truthfully engage—the public they serve about what is going on at Truax Field?

Only if Madison and Dane County residents demand it. 


Maria Powell, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization.


Original Letter
Maria Powell: Superfund will not protect our waterways — or us — from the military’s toxic pollution