Denow landfill has been a long, expensive situation
By Steve Schuster - News Graphic
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
http://bit.ly/towngrafton2013 and type in 1133 for the license
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
http://bit.ly/towngraftonwater 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
Contact Steve Schuster at
email@example.com or via Twitter