When the U.S. Army announced last year it would not be able to fund a previously agreed upon municipal drinking water system for the town of Merrimac area impacted by groundwater contamination, community stakeholders took notice. The announcement also caught the attention of local, state and federal lawmakers, including U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, who started following the situation when she was elected to Congress in 1999.
In May, Baldwin, as part of the Appropriations Committee, successfully included language directing the Army to accelerate cleanup activities at the Badger Ammunition Plant, work with local stakeholders and consider the construction of a municipal drinking water system for the town of Merrimac as one potential final environmental remediation action.
Around the same time, the Army announced it contracted with the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct an independent review of cleanup efforts at Badger to date, and then will take the results of the investigation to form next step solutions.
In November 2017, groundwater results for the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant area showed although slowly decreasing, unsafe levels of dinitrotoluene continue to be detected in the northeast corner of the former ammunition site in the town of Merrimac. DNT exposure has been linked with an increased risk for cancer and other illnesses.
Although the U.S. Army has ramped up its cleanup efforts at Badger and has recently begun to communicate more clearly and often with community stakeholders, some people are frustrated and tired of waiting.
Town of Merrimac Administrator Tim McCumber said he isn’t satisfied with the Army’s response so far.
“The Army not only reneged on their proposed water system, their work to complete another risk assessment has taken us back 10 years in the progress they were making,” McCumber said.
According to Sen. Baldwin’s office, the Army didn’t say construction and temporary operation of a municipal drinking water system was outside the scope of possibilities, but that the administrative process steps required by law and Army regulations to determine a final cleanup remedy — including a drinking water system — were not taken. However, once those steps are taken and data is collected by the Army, it could result in the selection of a drinking water system.
However, the language used by J. Randall Robinson, acting assistant secretary for the Army in a letter in April last year to Baldwin led many people to believe the Army was backing out of its promise permanently. In it, Randall states Army representatives “acted prematurely and beyond their area of authority. As a result, providing a drinking water system would be inconsistent with our authority under the Defense Environmental Restoration program.”
In addition, Cathy Kropp, Environmental PA Specialist with the U.S. Army Environmental Command, said, “A municipal drinking water system is no longer being considered as a remedial alternative ...” in a statement to the Eagle June 25.
“The Army is evaluating remedial alternatives in accordance with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act process and the Defense Environmental Restoration Program,” Kropp said.
Baldwin said while the plan to reclaim the land for conservation, recreation, research and education is nearing realization, there are still cleanup issues the Army still needs to address.
“I am continuing to work to ensure that the Army meets its obligations to the community and delivers on the vision that stakeholders agreed upon for the future of the site,” Baldwin said. “I am pleased that our collective hard work and persistence has paid off over the years and we’ve made progress on long standing problems. I remain committed to keeping the Army on task relative to its cleanup responsibilities at Badger Ammo, including ensuring clean drinking water and sediment cleanup.”
Laura Olah, executive director for Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, said the municipal water system would have replaced the need for the Army to continue to test the groundwater around Badger. Because the Army has stated that is no longer being considered for remediation, Olah insists it doesn’t remove the Army’s responsibility.
Additionally, Olah questioned why testing for other potential contaminates – known human carcinogens such as PFAS — man-made chemicals that don’t break down in the human body an accumulate leading to adverse human health effects and Dioxane — isn’t being conducted along with other testing.
Kropp said the Army is in the process of reviewing and identifying potential sites where PFAS releases may have occurred, and based on those results, the Army will decide whether sampling is appropriate.
“If testing identifies drinking water sources above the EPA’s Lifetime Health Advisory level, the Army will take necessary actions to eliminate exposure to drinking water greater than the Lifetime Health Advisory level,” Kropp said.
McCumber said the drinking water system was the most practical way to proceed.
“The Army estimated they would spend nearly $80 million in taxpayer money treating the water and testing all of the wells,” he said. “Their proposal to build a water system was at least a $50 million savings over the same time period by constructing the system, shutting down the treatment plant and reducing testing to just monitoring the existing contamination plumes.”
The USGS is expected to present its findings at a future public information meeting, and once the results of the Human Health Risk Assessment have been presented to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, those results will also be made public.