Town of Grafton's Denow landfill water contamination has lasting
Town hopes to
find answers to contamination questions
By Steve Schuster - News Graphic
January 8, 2013
dumped at the Denow landfill in 1982.
Photo courtesy of
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Grafton — Decades worth of legal action
over the contamination of Ozaukee County’s groundwater still hasn’t
reached settlement, according to town of Grafton officials who, for
the past four years, have been meeting in closed session discussions
as recently as last month.
The contamination is the result of claimed illegal dumping of toxic
materials at the Denow landfill, which operated on Cedar Sauk Road
from 1970 until 1989 in the town of Grafton.
Currently, the town is in negotiations with a third party, who is
allegedly responsible for part of the illegal dumping.
According to town officials and reports from the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services, the illegal and/or unsupervised dumping
at the privately operated 10-acre landfill began in the 1970s.
The illegal dumping and resulting contamination was discovered two
Early testing of the well water near the landfill revealed multiple
contaminants, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as
vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing agent, according to Kenneth Wein, a
consultant who worked on the initial cleanup of the landfill during
A water sample taken near the landfill in the late 1990s revealed
the presence of vinyl chloride at 33 parts per billion, well above
the 2.0 ppb maximum level deemed safe by government officials. In
addition to vinyl chloride, several other chemicals were found,
including tetrachlorethene and dichloroethane.
According to federal government documents, a follow-up water
sampling revealed that eight private wells had vinyl chloride levels
as high as 60 ppb.
In 2005, the contamination became so severe an Emergency Response
Branch from the Environmental Protection Agency Region V office in
Chicago was dispatched to the contamination site to evaluate the
source of the contamination.
In 1998, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said they
were the first agency involved in determining the extent of the
environmental contamination and necessary cleanup. The EPA became
involved in 2003, allegedly due to the failure of town officials to
comply with requests made by state officials, according to Nancy
Ryan, a hydrologist with the DNR.
In 2008, the DNR referred the town of Grafton
and Great American Financial Resources Inc. to the Wisconsin
Department of Justice for allegedly failing to comply with an
administrative order. Town officials have a different story. Town
Chairman Lester Bartel Jr. said Jan. 2 that he personally called the
EPA right after learning about the contaminated water, knowing that
the problem was serious.
“The first thing on our mind was to get (this
situation) taken care of,” he said.
The EPA failed to respond to the News Graphic’s
questions prior to publication.
At the time, Grafton officials also informed
residents they shouldn’t consume, bathe or cook with the water,
provided residents with bottled water and eventually connected the
affected homes with an alternative water supply with the help from
“The town did what they were supposed to do.
Grafton did the right thing,” said Dr. Thomas Burke, an
environmental expert, professor and Associate Dean at Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
State environmental groups agreed.
According to Dr. Shahla Warner, Chapter Director
of the Wisconsin Sierra Club in Madison, other municipalities across
the nation have experienced similar water contamination issues. Not
all cities however have been truthful about the extent of the
problem as it appears Grafton was.
“Grafton did the right thing by telling their
residents. It sounds like Grafton did this the best way they could,
in the most expedient way,” Warner said.
Grafton went one step further, and even
successfully determined the source of the contaminants.
According to Bartel, several years ago the town
hired an investigator who determined that various companies were
dumping barrels of chemicals on the site after hours and now the
town is conducting settlement negotiations with one of those
Bartel also said that while the DNR ultimately
called upon the EPA to intervene, it was not because the town was
He said the town believed that it should not be
held responsible for the contamination because the landfill was
privately operated, and the town was only the license holder of the
“The town did not permit in any way or condone
in any way the actions that resulted in the groundwater
contamination,” Bartel said.
But state and federal officials disagreed with
the town’s original position.
“They (town of Grafton officials) were the
operator and the license holder. It was their responsibility to make
sure it (the landfill) was operated appropriately,” Ryan said.
Town of Grafton’s legal counsel for the matter,
Michael Carlton with von Briesen & Roper SC, declined to comment as
did Linda Benfield with Foley & Lardner who represents a third
|Part 1 of 2
Part 2 of 2
Next: The town of Grafton has been spending money on
monitoring and legal fees concerning the Denow landfill. How
much has the town spent? What are the health risks from
vinyl chloride exposures?
Contact Steve Schuster at
firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter