Town of Grafton's Denow landfill water contamination has lasting impact
Town hopes to find answers to contamination questions

By Steve Schuster - News Graphic Staff

January 8, 2013

Medical waste 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 decades later.

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 the 1990s.

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 village officials.

“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 parties.

Bartel also said that while the DNR ultimately called upon the EPA to intervene, it was not because the town was unresponsive.

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 landfill.

“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 party.

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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?

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