With PFAS cleanup years in the future, National Guard says its moving ‘quickly’ on Truax investigation

January 12, 2022, Chris Hubbuch | Wisconsin State Journal
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The National Guard says it is moving at a “really quick pace” to investigate toxic pollution at Truax Field, though it could take more than a decade to begin actual cleanup.

Testing of groundwater under the base has revealed fluorinated compounds known as PFAS at levels thousands of times above proposed state standards, but the federally-guided process requires years of study, planning and approval.

Used for decades in firefighting foam, the so-called “forever chemicals” have been linked to illnesses including cancer and liver disease. PFAS have contaminated a municipal well about a mile from the airport, as well as in Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona, which are now under fish consumption advisories.Bill Myer, environmental restoration manager for the federal National Guard Bureau, said the government does not know how wide or how deep the contamination has spread or what other entities could be responsible for the pollution.

“We just can’t jump to cleanup without getting the answers because then we might not be using our resources right,” Myer told several dozen people at a public meeting Tuesday. “We’re doing our best. We are moving at a really quick pace to get this done.”

The Wisconsin National Guard has spent about $2 million so far on the investigation. Myer said the next phase is expected to cost almost $2 million more.

A requirement of the federally-funded cleanup process, the in-person meeting at Madison Technical College was held despite calls from federal, state and local elected officials to postpone it in light of the current surge in COVID-19 cases.

Maria Powell, founder of Midwest Environmental Justice Organization, called the meeting a “token exercise” held only to qualify for federal funding.

“They knew what they were doing in announcing this in-person meeting on Dec. 28 during the heart of the holidays, with Omicron already surging,” Powell said. “What a joke.”

Have your say – The National Guard Bureau is accepting public comments on plans to investigate PFAS contamination at Truax Field. Comments can be submitted until Feb. 14 to william.myer.2@us.af.mil.

The Guard will accept written comments on the cleanup plan through Feb. 14.

It has been almost four years since the Department of Natural Resources informed the 115th Fighter Wing, Dane County and the city of Madison that they were responsible for PFAS contamination on and around the base.

While Madison and Dane County have sought to blame the National Guard, all three trained with PFAS foam for decades at the airport.

The National Guard Bureau is conducting cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA. Sometimes known as the Superfund, the law allows the Environmental Protection Agency to direct cleanup of “orphan” sites when responsible parties fail to act or can’t be identified.

Under CERCLA, the investigation phase can take up to four years, at which point the military would conduct a feasibility study to determine options for cleanup. That could take another four years. It could then take another five years to get public input and put a final cleanup plan in place.

According to the military’s consultant, the Guard could do a limited cleanup in the meantime if the study determines there’s an “unacceptable risk” to public health, though they did not define what would constitute such a risk.

In November the DNR authorized an experimental treatment that involves injection of calcium peroxide, bacteria and an absorbent cellulosic media into the soil in hopes of degrading the PFAS in place.

The Guard has until July to submit a report on the effectiveness of the treatment, but Lt. Col. Dan Statz said initial results are “promising.”

The EPA has said drinking water is safe with combined PFOS and PFOA concentrations up to 70 parts per trillion, though new agency documents suggest that level should be just 1 ppt. Groundwater samples from Truax Field have shown PFOS alone at concentrations reaching 48,000 ppt.

The DNR is finalizing rules that would set drinking and groundwater standards at 20 ppt, in line with the recommendations of state health officials. If approved by the Legislature, those standards would be in place by 2023.

Myers would not say whether the National Guard would adhere to the state standards.

“Until they’ve actually been promulgated we can’t speculate on what a standard could be,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re not going to consider them.”