Last Thursday, June 30th, the Madison Water Utility hosted a community listening session and update on Well 15, the well that shut down in 2019 due to PFAS contamination.
Well 15 is one of Madison’s 22 wells. Located on East Washington Avenue near the East Towne Mall, it served water to many northeast neighborhoods along the East Washington corridor.
PFAS, a family of “forever chemicals” linked to negative health effects, was detected in the well’s water in 2017. The well was shut down in March of 2019 due to advocacy by neighborhood associations and the Madison Environmental Justice Forum. The well has remained shut since.
The city has been exploring treatment plans to bring the well back online, and Thursday’s meeting served as both an update and a chance for community input on those plans.
At the meeting, Krishna Kumar, the general manager of the Water Utility, reaffirmed the city’s commitment to making sure Well 15’s water is treated before its reopening. “We will not operate Well 15 until after the PFAS treatment project is complete. In other words, thou shalt not get untreated water from Well 15.” He continued, detailing the Utility’s plans, “What is it we are doing? We are proactively planning a PFAS treatment project at Well 15.”
The Water Utility is contracting with AECOM, an engineering firm, to create a design for Well 15’s treatment facility. Kumar explained that they have already begun that contracting work, and sketched out the timeline going forward. “So the contract has been signed in May 2022 and we are hoping to have a preliminary design report by October 2022. The final construction design, if all goes well, in June 2023, and then spring of 2024 we probably can begin construction and completing it in 2025.”
Funding is anticipated from Wisconsin’s portion of the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last November, and the city is in the process of applying for that grant and loan funding.
Madison residents in the crowd asked questions, raised logistical points, and expressed frustrations over how the Well 15 project has progressed. Concerns included the perceived slow pace of the project and the two year delay in shutting the well down. Water Utility staff emphasized that Well 15 PFAS contamination was below Wisconsin drinking water standards. Levels of combined PFOA and PFOS, two PFAS chemicals with well-researched negative health impacts, were detected in the well in 2018 at 12 parts per trillion, lower than the Wisconsin drinking water standard of 70 parts per trillion. However, the federal EPA issued health advisories on June 15th of .004 parts per trillion for PFOA and .02 parts per trillion for PFOS, orders of magnitude lower than Wisconsin’s standards and below what is currently detectable. These new advisories were revised down from the EPA’s 2016 health advisory of 70 parts per trillion because of new evidence that negative health effects can occur at lower levels than previously thought.
Some residents were worried their communities were being left behind. Todd Johnson, a Madison East Community Center staff member, pointed out racial disparities, saying, “People who are Black and brown seem to be affected way more harshly than the other community members.” Another staff member asked if the city would provide water filters in the meantime. “If we know that filtration is helpful in reducing these levels, is there not any responsibility on the part of Madison Water Utility to provide those filtration systems to people, especially those who are low-income? If you can’t pay for a filtration system that could potentially lower these levels, then you’re just, I guess, out of luck.” Water Utility staff said they would explore that option and again emphasized contamination was below Wisconsin standards.
After the meeting, Johnson explained why he spoke up and his impression of how it went. “I felt as if the Black and brown community gets impacted a lot harder, and so I needed to express that. So hopefully they got that point that I was trying to make that, hey, this water is very important, and when we get affected, we get affected a little bit harsher. There was no pushback or anything like that, they seemed to be receptive to it, so I’m really waiting and seeing and hoping that this next meeting coming up will have better answers than we had.”
Another Well 15 update and community listening session will be held at the East Madison Community Center in August. Details on the day and time will be made available closer to time.