Bacteria and nitrate contamination have long been threats to public health

MADISON — Six environmental groups including one national organization are seeking federal action on longstanding groundwater contamination issues in Kewaunee County, where roughly 30 percent of tested wells are compromised by bacteria, high nitrate levels, or both.

“Everyone deserves safe, clean and reliable drinking water, but Kewaunee County residents gamble with their health simply by turning on the faucets in their homes,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, staff attorney with Clean Wisconsin. “We’re seeking federal action to help create a long-term solution to what’s unfortunately been a long-term problem for thousands of people in the area.”

Clean Wisconsin, Environmental Integrity Project, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Midwest Environmental Defense Center, Kewaunee CARES and the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin have jointly filed a Petition for Emergency Action detailing the need for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to exercise its emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The law empowers EPA to step in to provide safe drinking water in an area where contamination poses serious public health threats. Petitioners are asking EPA to investigate the source of contamination and initiate enforcement actions against polluters that should be held accountable. This effort builds upon ongoing local efforts including the recent 20-0 Kewaunee County Board of Supervisors vote seeking to limit winter manure spreading in the areas most susceptible to groundwater pollution.

“Kewaunee County has for too long been the canary in the coal mine with unchecked contamination in our soils and water, threatening our homes, health and future,” said Lynn Utesch, an area farmer and member of Kewaunee CARES. “The time has come for action, as we’ve hit a state of emergency plaguing our community and threatening human health.”

Portions of Kewaunee County are especially susceptible to groundwater pollution because they have shallow soils overlaying fractured carbonate bedrock, resulting in the rapid movement of contaminants, including bacteria and nitrates. Even a single exposure to salmonella or campylobacter jejuni which has been found in some of Kewaunee County’s wells, has been known to cause serious illness or death. High nitrate levels pose significant risks to children and pregnant women including blue baby syndrome, a life-threatening condition that limits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain.

“It’s a very disturbing trend to see groundwater contamination continue to rise as the state fails to act,” said Dean Hoegger, of the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin. “We need the EPA to step in to protect the citizens of Kewaunee County and other karst regions.”

In the request filed today, EPA is asked to investigate pollutants in Kewaunee’s drinking water to pinpoint safety concerns, create a monitoring system and determine what can be done for sufficient management standards to protect against future contamination. Similar EPA action was taken to help manage nitrates in the groundwater of the Lower Yakima Valley in Washington State in 2012.

“Clean groundwater is essential to the health and welfare of citizens who rely on it for drinking water,” said Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, a national organization that provides legal support to grassroots efforts fighting pollution. “EPA must hold polluters accountable for cleaning up Kewaunee County’s drinking water, as it has in other states.”

Despite well-documented pollution, including a comprehensive task force report conducted in 2007, Kewaunee County’s groundwater issues have been largely untouched by local and state officials. Agriculture is not the sole cause of the contamination but is a major contributor, and intensive agricultural practices are on the rise in Kewaunee County, which has the highest concentration of large livestock confinements of any county in the state. Records show that the animals on Kewaunee’s largest farms, combined, produce the biological waste equivalent of 900,000 humans annually, about nine times the size of the population of the City of Green Bay. Nearly 340 million gallons of liquid manure and more than 81 tons of solid manure is spread annually throughout the county. Kewaunee County farmers own and manage 175,449 acres, or 80 percent, of the county’s land.

Find the petition and supporting documents here.