The onus is on rural homeowners with private wells to check their water supplies, and local experts encourage people to test for possible contaminants in their drinking water sooner rather than later.
The Environmental Integrity Project released a report Monday that found a majority of coal-fired power plants nationwide — including at the Columbia Energy Center outside Portage — have caused contaminants such as arsenic to leak into groundwater.
Whether near or far from industrial facilities, local agriculture and water safety experts say the water supplies for rural homes and businesses can pose a health hazard and should be tested.
“They’re kind of their own water utility manager,” said University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Groundwater Outreach Specialist Kevin Masarik. “Testing really is the only way to evaluate whether the water they’re pulling from their well is safe to drink.”
UW-Extension Columbia County Agriculture Extension Educator George Koepp said the university program partners with county officials, utility providers and UW-Stevens Point experts every few months to encourage the public to test their groundwater.
“They’ve been picking several townships at a time,” Koepp said.
In April, Columbia County officials will push for private well tests in the towns of Fort Winnebago, Wyocena, Marcellon and Pacific.
When rural homeowners send in a private well water sample, experts can test for contaminants including pesticides, bacteria, nitrates or corrosives.
Experts also can test for total coliform bacteria, which could come from e-coli in manure tanks on farms or even a malfunctioning septic system.
A general homeowner’s package runs about $52, with metal testing kits valued at $49.
Kits are available for pickup on select days in various towns or anytime at Columbia County’s UW Extension office. All kits are tested at UW-Stevens Point.
One potential water quality hazard looms large over the area south of Portage at the Columbia Energy Center, owned by Alliant Energy.
The Environmental Integrity Project report on Columbia Energy Center was critical of the fact the plant had both a coal ash pond and landfill on-site that did not include protective layers to help prevent groundwater contamination. Older facilities were not required to install the additional protective measures, though new installations require such barriers.
Alliant Energy Senior Communications Partner Scott Reigstad said the company meets necessary safety requirements and follows the Environmental Protection Agency’s separately enforced coal combustion residual standards.
Reigstad said the information contained in Monday’s report “does not indicate a direct concern to any wells that supply drinking water.”
He also said Columbia Energy Center has not identified any leakage of coal ash into the nearby Wisconsin River.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, coal ash is a residue left over after coal is burned in coal-fired power plants to produce energy. Coal ash has several by-products that could contain materials such as arsenic or mercury, which would make drinking water unsafe for humans if too much of those materials enter a reservoir such as a private well.
He cast doubt on the methods by which the group obtained data on Columbia Energy Center, which the report said has two times as many contaminants in nearby groundwater than is considered safe.
Reigstad said the environmental group took raw data from just one of several groundwater monitoring wells in April 2018, but never used follow-up data showing high levels of arsenic and molybdenum were gone during separate tests this past August, September and October.
Alliant Energy says it will convert to dry ash handling and close its coal ash ponds at Columbia Energy Center as early as 2023. Reigstad said inspectors will continue to check those ponds for 30 years after the conversion.
“If there were any confirmed exceedances of any kind in the future, we would take corrective action,” Reigstad said, citing Monday’s report. “There is not ‘significant contamination’ of groundwater near Columbia Energy Center.”
Steve Elmore, program director for the DNR’s Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater, said standards call for separate annual tests for bacteria and arsenic at various facilities.
Elmore said the DNR is ready to address possible public concerns, and rural residents should get in the habit of having their water analyzed as a general precaution.
The Wisconsin Department of Health lists arsenic, copper, lead, radium and volatile organic compounds as the most common contaminants seen in Wisconsin.
Columbia County Director of Land and Water Conservation Kurt Calkins likened water tests to getting a routine oil change, a necessary safety procedure.
“People are really starting to pay attention to it,” Calkins said.
The local program tests primarily for arsenic, Calkins said. But rather than trying to answer the question of whether the contaminants are caused by utility providers or natural geologic events, the informational program focuses on general safe practices.
“We just want it to be a routine,” Calkins said.
Masarik said people can’t always see, taste or smell contaminants, and proper testing is important because it establishes a historic record.
He estimates about 10 percent of the nearly 1 million private well owners in Wisconsin test their water supplies every year.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website says Wisconsin leads the U.S. with a majority of public water systems relying on groundwater. Unlike private systems in the state, public water systems regularly are monitored for contaminants and regulated by the DNR.
At least a third of water used in commercial and industrial settings and 97 percent of agricultural irrigation water also is drawn from groundwater, according to the DNR.
Without records, it’s hard to prove whether land ownership changes or business activities could have affected the water quality, Masarik said.
Generally speaking, “there’s always a potential for those activities to contaminate our groundwater,” Masarik said.