Lance Green was familiar with the contamination in his neighborhood long before he went door-to-door to schedule soil tests.
Often, those who answered the knock already knew, too.
“People were already aware that there was a problem and that their home may or may not be involved,” Green said. “Most people just wanted to know, especially if they had kids.”
Green, a retired air management specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, knew the drill. He weaved through the neighborhood to educate residents about the soil testing process and, hopefully, get them signed up.
“It was a big deal because the contaminants were right on the edge of some peoples’ properties and backyards,” Green said. “And at fairly high levels.”
For residents on Madison’s East Side, years of industrial solvent use at Madison-Kipp Corp. was threatening the both property and health after soil tests in 2012 showed high levels of tetrachloroethylene (PCE) inside homes near the plant–a shock to Madison’s reputable water supply and general environmental consciousness.
More recently, Kipp has identified a contaminant plume underneath the facility that is threatening a Madison Water Utility drinking well, Well No. 8, according to Linda Hanefield, a team supervisor at the DNR.
Green first learned about the contamination through his own work at the DNR. He saw the notifying letter of contamination from Kipp, a manufacturer of machine parts, in 1994.
Some remedial efforts were put into place, but not enough to hold off two civil suits filed in 2011-12 by more than 80 families who argued that investigation and clean-up efforts by Kipp were inadequate.
Since retiring from the DNR, Green also continues to wrestle with the consequences of Kipp’s contamination as a council member of the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association.
“There’s fear on many levels, fear because of contaminants and a possible health risk, but also fear of losing the value of your home,” he said.
Today, much of the attention has turned towards the underground plume.
“We don’t see it often. This is a pretty good groundwater contamination.” Hanefield said. “It’s a significant risk.”
Soil tests conducted as recently as October 2013 had vapor levels of PCE that measured 6,500 parts per billion, far above the federal drinking water level of 5 ppb. The contaminants are a result of Kipp’s historic venting of vapor degreasers out of the plant where chemicals then condensed and seeped into the soil.
Kipp, with the help of Arcadis, an environmental consultancy firm, has installed several monitoring wells at the site and along the predominant water flow which the DNR believes to be towards Lake Monona and Well No. 8, Hanefield says.
In addition to the sheer proximity of the plume to Well No. 8, the DNR also believes that one section of the well may be especially vulnerable because it is not insulated by any amour, such as steel, to protect from pollutants of this kind.
“That is a big concern,” Hanefield said. “If it gets over that far, there’s nothing to keep it from getting pulled into the whole Well 8 system.”
That is the million dollar question. Will it get that far?
Madison Water Utility recently hired a hydrogeologist with a specialization in modeling to analyze the plume and its behaviors, according to MWU Public Information Officer Amy Barrilleaux.
Barrilleaux says similar contractors have suggested that the plume is “trapped” in bedrock. Should this be confirmed, the Utility would like to use Well 8 year-round, as opposed to seasonally.
“We’d really like to be able to use the well to its full potential,” she said. “Before drilling another well, we’d rather invest in infrastructure we already have.”
Hanefield says the DNR is working closely with the Utility as these options are discussed, as increased operation at Well No. 8 could theoretically pull the plume closer to the water supply.
For this reason, Green says he and many other residents will need more information before they are fully convinced that increased pumping will not disturb the contaminants.
“There’s plenty of local concern here at the East Side about using it full time,” he said. “If this city invests enough money to do it right, I think people’s concerns will be somewhat allayed.”
Green sees these possible investments as iron and manganese filters, PCE filters or other preventative measures to control pollution before it runs through kitchen faucets.
In the meantime, Hanefield says Kipp continues to cooperate with the DNR by running quarterly tests at all monitoring wells. Additionally, the corporation is preparing to pump out and treat some of the most severely contaminated groundwater from under the plant.
“Given the pretty significant concentrations, they are too high for natural processes alone to address the issue,” Hanefield said. “We’ve got to do something to keep the source from spreading.”
During this process, Kipp has agreed to sample a monitoring well between Well 8 and the plume to track any changes during pumping, according to Kipp’s Environmental and Safety Coordinator Alina Satkoski.
Satkoski also added that the models developed for Kipp show “the groundwater plume is unlikely to affect city Well 8.”
Lance Green has lived in his home for 32 years and can only hope that this is the case.
But for him and other families on the East Side, all the reassurance in the world does not make up for the ellipsis of uncertainty when officials like Hanefield say “we don’t think any of the contamination has hit this well… yet.”