SAUK CITY — Mary Jane Koch stopped drinking the water in her home 11 years ago, shortly after an industrial compound turned up in the well supplying drinking water to her home.
The source of the contamination: the now-closed Badger Army Ammunition Plant.
Badger was a military installation built in 1942 on more than 7,000 acres near Baraboo. The plant was owned and operated by the U.S. government to produce smokeless gunpowder for rockets, cannons and small arms used in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. It operated on and off for 33 years.
During its operation, the plant pumped excess chemicals and millions of gallons of wastewater into Lake Wisconsin and burned toxic substances in large pits on the site, leaving the soil, surface and groundwater contaminated with a dangerous stew of chemicals, including some known or likely to cause cancer.
Now, 400 monitoring wells dot the site, and the Army has spent $125 million cleaning up contaminated soil and water. While the land is being redeveloped for recreation, dairy research and tribal uses, the groundwater under the Badger site remains polluted.
The Army is working on a plan to install a water system for about 400 households to replace tainted groundwater as the source of drinking water in this scenic region about 30 miles northwest of Madison.
Long history of pollution
Koch was surprised when she heard that the Army had found something in her well in 2004. She did not know her well had been tested.
The letter she received said that concentrations of ethyl ether, a chemical used in production of smokeless gunpowder, had been detected in her well at 17 parts per million. The state groundwater enforcement standard is 1 part per million for ethyl ether, a little-studied chemical that can cause alcohol-like effects at high doses.
The Army delivered five-gallon jugs of water to her home the next day but discontinued the delivery two months later when tests showed no presence of ethyl ether.
To this day, Koch cooks with and drinks only bottled water at home. She does not trust the water from her well. Koch grew up near Badger and has seen the effects of the unchecked pollution firsthand.
In 1961, when she was a teenager, Koch’s family bought a summer cottage — about a mile and a half north of her current home — across from the Badger plant on Lake Wisconsin. She remembers the thick, sticky mud in the water.
“When we first moved in … we couldn’t swim out in front of the cottage,” she said. “We didn’t know what this muck was all about. I mean, it was like if you went down in it you were stuck.”
As a young adult, she remembers seeing water rushing from pipes buried under Old Highway 78. That water, coming from the Badger plant, poured into Lake Wisconsin and forcefully pushed the bottom of the lake up in front of the cottage. She thinks the year was 1968, when Badger was in production for the Vietnam War.
“It was around ’68 because my sister was married in ’68 and they lived there (the cottage) for a year. They couldn’t use the water,” she recalled. “They got their drinking water from Sauk City where my parents lived at the time. Dad was able to sell the property, eventually, but nobody could really live there.”
Koch also recounted a story from her older brother about a day in the early 1980s when his two boys jumped into the water near the family cottage. They emerged from the water with silver residue all over their bodies.
According to a 2006 article written by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, about 25 million gallons of wastewater per day was dumped into Gruber’s Grove Bay in Lake Wisconsin near the Koch cottage when Badger was in full production. That wastewater contained mercury and other metals.
The Army eventually dredged Gruber’s Grove Bay in 2001 and again in 2006.
The 2006 effort produced 500 pounds of mercury, 12,000 pounds of copper, 16,000 pounds of zinc and 36,000 pounds of lead among the 150,000 cubic yards of sediment removed from the bay, the DNR reported.
Tainted water, troubled mind
Koch and her husband moved away from the Sauk Prairie area for a time in the early 1970s — not because of the contamination, but so he could finish school and start his career. They came back to the area to raise a family.
They built a home in 1977 north of the Prairie du Sac Dam on the Wisconsin River, a mile and a half south of the cottage. They did not know about the extensive groundwater contamination from Badger.
Koch read about the tainted water years later in the Sauk Prairie Star. It was 1990, and the Army reported dangerous chemicals had been detected in residential wells in a subdivision south of Badger near her home. The news brought her to tears.
Chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, probable human carcinogens, had been detected at levels that exceeded Wisconsin groundwater enforcement standards. The Army eventually replaced two wells in 1990 and one in 1996.
In 2004, the Kochs were notified by the Army that ethyl ether was detected in their well. She felt like her nightmare had begun all over again. Koch started attending public meetings held by the Army and the DNR about the groundwater cleanup at Badger.
At one of the meetings she remembers saying to the representatives from the Army: “Why were we ever allowed to build there if you guys knew about this?”
Soil and groundwater polluted
In 1977, the same year that Koch and her husband built their house, the Army began to assess the environmental damage at Badger. It started looking at treatment options for cleaning up the contamination found in multiple areas at the site, where for three decades the military had burned excess chemicals and waste in open pits.
A soil vapor extraction system was installed to remove chemicals in waste pits. Some 1,600 pounds of volatile organic compounds were removed, and 2,280 cubic yards of soil were dug up, moved off site and incinerated.
Once the vapor removal system was discontinued in 1999, a bio-treatment system was installed in one of the numerous waste pits areas. Groundwater was extracted from under the pit, treated with phosphate and re-injected into the soil.
At another site, chemicals were burned along with trash, construction rubble and coal ash from the power plant at Badger. About 4,260 cubic yards were excavated from that area and incinerated off-site.
Yet, even with this elaborate treatment system in place, highly dangerous compounds including dinitrotoluene (DNT), carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene (TCE) made their way into the groundwater.
In fact, since well monitoring began at Badger in the early 1980s, varying levels of these three chemicals have been detected in groundwater at the site and in private wells south and southeast of the site.
Environmental data produced for the Army in 2011 showed that levels of DNT, which can affect the central nervous system and blood; carbon tetrachloride, a probable human carcinogen; and TCE, a known carcinogen with a wide array of other harmful health effects, have diminished over time.
However, the latest environmental monitoring data from November 2014 found that levels of all three contaminants continue to exceed Wisconsin groundwater enforcement standards in a number of wells on or near the Badger site.
Will Myers, the DNR’s team leader for environmental remediation at Badger, was asked what might cause such high levels after 25 years of cleanup.
Myers said “evaluating contaminated groundwater can be difficult” because contaminant levels can “fluctuate for many reasons” since groundwater is a “very dynamic system.” Changing elevation levels and flows can cause “spikes” in contaminant levels, he said.
Studies refute cancer concerns
Residents living near Badger have long been concerned about the cancer risks associated with exposure to contaminated groundwater used for drinking.
In response to those concerns, state health officials conducted a cancer rate review in 1990 of the communities near Badger. It concluded that between 1980 and 1988, residents did not experience “statistically higher than expected” cancer deaths in areas where contaminants were detected in private wells.
The study also looked at cancer mortality rates between 1960 and 1988. That survey for 11 types of cancer concluded residents living near Badger had cancer mortality rates similar to rates of residents in other parts of the state.
A follow-up study conducted in 1997 concluded that cancer mortality and incident rates for residents near Badger were still similar to other Wisconsin communities.
Koch is not reassured by these health assessments.
“The problem with some of the wells they’ve been testing is there will be three different chemicals that were found. … Some of them have two to three chemicals but not at levels (higher than the state enforcement standards) so they don’t think it’s a problem. No one can give us an answer as to what kind of chemical cocktail that’s making.”
Myers, in response to questions posed by Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, said residents need not be concerned. The environmental nonprofit, based in Merrimac, has pushed for monitoring and remediation at the site for years.
“For both soil and groundwater at Badger, the concentrations are low, there is very limited interaction between compounds, and the standards are very conservative,” Myers wrote.
But state epidemiologist Dr. Henry Anderson said there is uncertainty — and no health standards — regarding the cumulative effect of multiple chemicals in the groundwater.
Koch has known a number of families living near Badger that have been affected by cancer. It is this anecdotal evidence that connects the dots for her.
Laura Olah, executive director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, also has asked regulators to set health advisory levels for products that result from the breakdown of the explosive compound DNT, 16 of which have been detected in the groundwater at Badger. Olah said some of the products can be more harmful than the original contaminant.
Olah is also concerned that additives such as 1,4-dioxane, a compound used to stabilize TCE, are not being monitored at the site. The DNR has said it does not monitor for the compound. The EPA found after a multi-year scientific review of the health risks that 1,4-dioxane “can cause cancer or increase the incidence of cancer when people are exposed to relatively low levels for extended periods of time.”
Said Olah: “WDNR reports that the Army has not monitored groundwater for 1,4-dioxane, so there is no data to show whether or not it is present here. This is surprising given it is a probable carcinogen that is mobile in the environment and has not been shown to readily biodegrade.”
Clean water on the way?
Anderson said that given the concerns and uncertainties, state health officials believe the best course of action is to keep people from using water from residential wells near Badger.
The Army has proposed spending about $40 million to build a municipal drinking water system to serve some 400 properties in the Sauk County towns of Merrimac, Sumpter and Prairie du Sac plus 150 undeveloped residential lots. The price tag includes the cost of operating the system for the first five years and 20 years of groundwater monitoring in and around Badger. Customers would pay for the operation after five years.
Town of Merrimac resident Gene Franks believes a new water system is the only way to guarantee residents’ drinking water will be safe.
“The only way you really know for sure is to have a water supply outside of where the contamination occurred,” Franks said. “It seems to me to be a viable solution to having this gnawing doubt over the years that there might be some plume that might move into an area that no one ever expected. This would give us that 100 percent assurance.”
Franks is co-founder of Citizens for Practical Water Solutions, which pushed for formation of the new system. The group’s other founder, Roger Heidenreich, said many residents support the project — but not all. Some whose private wells are not tainted do not want to pay for water from a public water system — especially one that could later need costly upgrades or repairs, Heidenreich said.
And although the Merrimac Town Board approved formation of the water district in May, the Army still must approve the funding, which would trigger another round of review and negotiation that could take up to a year.
Residents at a March meeting in Sauk City also expressed concern about the plan to reduce monitoring at Badger over the next 20 years, which would end in 2032 unless contaminants continue to be found.
In addition, the Army plans to stop extracting and treating groundwater at Badger after four years once the water system is built, relying instead on natural processes to decrease the remaining contamination over time. In 2011, it reported extracting just 18 pounds of contaminants after pumping and filtering millions of gallons of groundwater.
Town of Merrimac Administrator Tim McCumber is cautiously optimistic the new system will solve his community’s drinking water problem. McCumber mainly wants to make sure the system can grow as the community grows and not become a financial burden to local residents.
For Mary Jane Koch, the new water system offers some hope. She was overjoyed when she got the phone call that the Army was going to provide a clean source of water for families around Badger. Koch will worry less about the drinking water in her neighborhood once the system is in place.
But she said the notion that the groundwater at Badger is contaminated, and may be for years to come, will always be in the back of her mind.
That tempers her joy.
The story was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Center and UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.