A new report finds that air pollution in Madison’s Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara (SASY) neighborhood dropped from 2019 to 2020. The study is the result of a neighborhood-led air quality survey — which SASY neighbors undertook in 2018 after the state rejected expanded air quality monitoring in the area.
The air quality report uses data collected over the past two years — and it’s driven by ten air quality monitors that were placed throughout the SASY neighborhood in 2018. The purchase of the monitors was funded by neighborhood contributions via a GoFundMe campaign.
Those monitors were installed primarily due to ongoing concerns over air pollution from the Madison-Kipp Corporation, which has two factories in the area. Madison-Kipp has been part of the SASY neighborhood for about 120 years.
Steve Klafka has lived in the SASY neighborhood for more than two decades. He says that the conflict between area residents and the Kipp Corporation has been around at least as long as he has.
“It’s been thirty years of contention between Madison-Kipp, the city, the DNR and neighbors trying to get the DNR and the city to enforce some reasonable limitations on what the factories can discharge into the air,” Klafka tells WORT.
In 1995, Madison-Kipp failed to tell East Side residents that it accidentally releases potentially toxic gas into the neighborhood, according to archives of the Wisconsin State Journal.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the state and city conducted public health surveys of areas surrounding the plants. They documented numerous cases of headaches, nose and eye irritation, nausea and difficulty breathing — although none of those were ever formally tied back to Madison-Kipp.
Klafka, an air quality engineer, says the federal government has repeatedly revised standards for fine particle pollution in recent years, most recently this past winter. Fine particle pollution, which is a fraction of the width of a human hair, can cause a number of adverse health impacts.
Klafka says the Department of Natural Resources has disregarded the feds’ updated guidelines.
“And it has never been applied to the discharges from the Madison-Kipp factories,” he says.
Under former Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s DNR was stripped of authority across the board — including the authority to regulate and monitor air pollutants in certain situations. Now, Klafka says the DNR uses a dated standard to monitor fine particle air pollution at the Madison-Kipp factories.
Says Klafka: “Back in 2007, the DNR evaluated the factory to see if they met the air standards, and they found they didn’t, so the factory had to make changes. The same thing should have happened when the new air particle standard was adopted — but that has not occurred because of this change in the DNR policies to make it easier on industries in Wisconsin.”
The DNR does operate an air quality monitor at East High School, about a mile north of the neighborhood. But, Klafka and other SASY neighbors have previously raised concerns that that monitor is too far away to accurately measure air pollution in the neighborhood.
Enter the PurpleAir monitors — commercially available devices which run a couple hundred dollars each. Since 2018, the monitors have been collecting daily air quality data around the SASY neighborhood — including the fine particle contamination the DNR doesn’t track.
The monitors’ pollution data was compiled into a report that was released today — which finds that from 2019 to 2020, overall air pollution in the SASY neighborhood dropped. Javier Martinez, an engineering PhD student at UW-Madison, is the lead author of the report.
He says air quality levels in the SASY neighborhood fell well within safe standards last year. In February 2020, fine particle pollution in the area decreased by nearly forty percent compared to February 2019.
Overall emissions from Madison-Kipp factories also declined by 32% from 2019 to 2020 — from 20.1 tons to 13.7 tons — as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, Martinez says the decline in air pollution can’t be solely chalked up to reduced emissions from Madison-Kipp.
Other factors, like reduced road traffic in the area due to the pandemic and wind direction, also likely contributed to the decline.
“What we cannot say is that the reduced concentrations were solely due to Madison-Kipp,” Martinez says. “There is a great contribution because of the reduction, and that’s indeed documented — but we can’t say it’s solely because of them.”
It’s one more data point in the ongoing community resistance to Madison-Kipp, which has previously come under scrutiny for its environmental impact.
In 2017, the corporation agreed to pay $350,000 in penalties to the Wisconsin Department of Justice over groundwater pollution near one of its factories. At the time, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that the corporation would have to pay out that penalty fee by 2026.
In 2013, the company paid $7.2 million and agreed to some environmental mitigation strategies in order to settle lawsuits brought by 33 nearby homeowners. That lawsuit alleged that Kipp failed to adequately clean up a carcinogen that seeped into groundwater and air.
PHOTO: An air quality monitoring device produced by PurpleAir / Courtesy of PurpleAir
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Madison-Kipp Corporation has two, not three, facilities in the SASY neighborhood and to clarify the location of the DNR’s air quality monitor.