Spotlight on issues in Southeastern Wisconsin as federal officials debate rules for coal ash

MADISON — A study released by Clean Wisconsin finds that more than one in five wells across Waukesha, Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties are contaminated with molybdenum at levels above the state health advisory level. Families and schools in the area are being forced to buy bottled water or install expensive purification systems to avoid the toxic metal, which is found in coal ash.

Clean Wisconsin’s report, Don’t Drink the Water, is the result of a year-long analysis of DNR well testing and coal ash disposal records, well testing conducted by Clean Wisconsin, and interviews with Southeastern Wisconsin residents. The study calls for a moratorium on coal ash spreading until better public protections can be put in place.

“Despite prior limited research into this contamination, the full extent of the problem has been unknown and well water here remains unsafe to drink,” said Tyson Cook, director of science and research for Clean Wisconsin. “Our research helps to fill some of the gaps, and indicates a link between coal ash waste in the region and molybdenum contamination.”

Coal ash contains concentrated levels of toxins such as arsenic, mercury, lead, and molybdenum. Don’t Drink the Water  identifies more than 1 million tons of coal ash placed under roads, buildings and schools in southeastern Wisconsin, including at the Yorkville Elementary School where Clean Wisconsin conducted additional testing that confirmed contamination out into the surrounding community.

“Toxic coal ash spills from landfills and retention ponds are not the only ways that coal ash can pollute the environment,” said Cook. “It is also regularly placed under construction projects, often with no barrier between the ash and the groundwater.”

The study found that wells closer to those coal ash disposal sites were contaminated at higher levels on average, and that nearly half the wells tested in the area exceeded the enforcement standard for molybdenum. The report also highlights deficiencies in Wisconsin’s regulation of coal ash.

“Wisconsin law prohibits continued use of toxic substances like coal ash in areas where groundwater quality is already compromised,” said Katie Nekola, general counsel for Clean Wisconsin. “We need to halt the use of coal ash where toxins can leach into groundwater, put better protections in place, and clean up the drinking water in southeastern Wisconsin.”

Currently, federal law exempts coal ash from adequate regulation. Congress is preparing to debate EPA’s draft coal ash rule next month.

“Public health depends on sensible, consistent, and enforceable standards for disposal of toxic waste,” said Nekola. “A strong federal coal ash rule could help ensure safe drinking water not only in Wisconsin, but across the nation.”

Read Don’t Drink the Water in its entirety and find out how to have your well water tested here.