Costly contamination
Denow landfill has been a long, expensive situation

By Steve Schuster - News Graphic Staff

January 11, 2013


This 1972 photo shows an accumulation of debris of all sorts at the Denow landfill in the town of Grafton. Trash at the site has been buried but contamination concerns persist.

DNR File Photo

Grafton — Monitoring vinyl chloride levels, a toxic chemical found in town of Grafton’s residential well water decades ago due to illegal dumping at the Denow landfill is not an easy task, nor is it an inexpensive one.

Decades worth of legal action over the contamination of Ozaukee County’s groundwater still hasn’t reached a 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.

In 1998, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued notices of liability to Rexnord Corp., Tecumseh Products Co., and Brunswick Corp., the parent company of Mercury Marine. But according to the story, both Tecumseh and Mercury Marine denied dumping at Denow landfill.

In 2008, the town of Grafton and Great American Financial Resources Inc. were referred by the state Department of Natural Resources to the state Department of Justice for allegedly failing to comply with an administrative order. The DOJ referral also alleged that the town of Grafton failed “to take actions necessary to restore the environment as required under Wis. Stats.”

On Tuesday, DOJ Communications Officer Dana Brueck said, “The Department of Justice no longer has an active referral from DNR. We did not bring an action in response to the original referral because, in consultation with the DNR, we did not believe that an enforcement action was appropriate at the time. We will not comment specifically on the reasons; however, it may be noted that the parties have been willing to cooperate with the DNR.”

While officials may be cooperating, the chemicals are not, according to experts.

Contaminants like vinyl chloride have a very long half-life and take an extended period of time to break down, according to Kenneth Wein, president of Key Engineering Group who served as a consultant for the landfill’s remediation in the 1990s.

To complicate matters even further, depending on soil and water table conditions, it can be difficult to determine all of the sources of contamination and potential environmental impact, he said.

The resulting monitoring and remediation process is expensive, too.

According to Grafton Town Chairman Lester Bartel, state and federal officials wanted the town to spend as much as $20 million to completely remove the toxic waste and ship it to a hazardous waste site several years ago. And, according to Bartel, state officials wanted the town to come up with money for monitoring every single private well within the town, which became unnecessary when the town switched water supplies.

Experts from two national consulting firms opined that the town could instead safely wait for the chemicals to dissipate over time through a process known as “natural attenuation,” Bartel said.

But DNR officials said they never proposed such a costly endeavor.

Regardless, as of January 2013, the town of Grafton taxpayers have already spent nearly $2 million on costs related to the Denow landfill, and according to Bartel, as much as $400,000 of that was spent on legal fees, which still continue to grow.

Affected homes were already connected to a safe alternative water supply with the help from village officials.

Bartel said that alone cost town taxpayers nearly $800,000, and additional monitoring is still needed.

DNR officials confirmed well monitoring is continuing.

Town resident Ron Sobel, who lives near the former dump site said that although his well hasn’t tested positive, he’s still concerned.

“As a neighbor, I think it’s a pretty obvious concern. We don’t drink or even cook with our well water,” he said.

According to Sobel, his biggest fear is the uncertainty.

“What are you going to do, test your well 365 days of the year? I remember talking to an EPA expert who said you can have the best well in the country one day and the worst the next day,” he said.

Experts agree with Sobel.

“Well water samples can vary significantly from one day to the next,” said Dr. Thomas Burke, an environmental expert, professor and associate dean at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Burke noted levels detected in town wells may have been well beyond normal but could have been much worse.

The town of Grafton’s contamination “is still a relatively low dose. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not serious,” he said.

What are the effects of prolonged exposure to relatively smaller levels of vinyl chloride?

The short answer? Experts don’t really know.

Burke said while not many studies have been conducted on those individuals who consumed this type of contaminated water, there are possible long term effects, even cancer.

“The odds are very small, but there is still some incremental risk for those exposed,” he said.

According to Burke, the greatest risk is for children.

Burke also noted there aren’t initial symptoms from consuming well water contaminated with vinyl chloride.

“It’s not like drinking water filled with bacteria where you would have intestinal problems,” he said.

Town officials said they are committed to making the land and water safe for their residents and visitors and recently submitted a revised remediation plan to state officials.

But Jeanne Tarvin, the geologist with Enviorn in Brookfield, who prepared the plan, declined to comment and deferred questions to attorney Linda Benfield with Foley & Lardner, who also declined to comment.

In December 2012, John Feeney, a hydrologist with the DNR’s Sheboygan County office, took over the case file from Nancy Ryan and said the DNR expects to send a response to town officials either approving or rejecting the town's plan sometime next month.

As recently as May 2012, town of Grafton water samples still show a presence of chemicals. In fact, one water monitoring site indicated levels of trichlorethene were at 3.7 ug/L, according to the DNR’s website. However, some of other the monitoring sites did not show a presence of chemicals. To view more of the recent and past monitoring results, visit and type in 1133 for the license number.

Cooperation has improved between town and state officials, according to DNR officials.

“Things now seem to be moving along,” Ryan said.

In the meantime, Wisconsin Sierra Club President Dr. Shahla Warner has advice for residents.

“If you have a private well, it’s important to get your water tested,” she said.

Warner also noted that if tests reveal excessive (chemical not bacterial) contamination levels, it’s imperative for residents to avoid boiling the water.

“Often the inhalation effects are worse than drinking it,” Warner said.

DNR officials suggested locating a water testing laboratory for additional information. Visit and under sample group codes select 'volatile organics,' and leave the rest of the fields blank.

For more information on other water quality and testing issues visit

To view a copy of the town of Grafton's groundwater natural attenuation monitoring plan (revised remedial design report Nov. 2012), scan the adjacent QR code or visit

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