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New Report Raises Concern about Quality of Southeastern Wisconsin's Drinking Water

Clean Wisconsin

Clean Wisconsin is the state’s largest and oldest environmental organization. Today it releases “Don’t Drink the Water”. The reports explores the correlation of coal ash and water contamination.

Coal ash is a byproduct of industrial operations such as power production.

A year of reviewing state records in a four-county area and taking water samples revealed that homes nearer coal ash sites had higher levels of molybdenum.

(The report states, “Molybdenum is only one of many toxic pollutants that leach into water from coal ash.”)

Molybdenum is natural-occurring in the earth’s crust, but at higher concentrations molybdenum carries health risks.

Credit Clean Wisconsin
Coal Ash in Study Area: Map of 399 documented "reuse" project sites, totaling over 1 million tons, in Waukesha, Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties.

Director of Science and Research, Tyson Cook says that’s what Clean Wisconsin is worried about, “research has linked it to reproductive and developmental problems in animals. It’s also been documented to cause a gout-like disease.

The EPA has set a lifetime health advisory limit for the amount in drinking water – 40 parts per billion.

Cook says young children are at highest risk, “because of their smaller body size and they’re still developing; so the EPA has a recommendation that children don’t drink water over 80 parts per billion for even a single day.”  

Wisconsin has actually earned high marks among some, for its high rate of “reuse” of coal ash. Cook says, rather than placing the coal plant byproduct in landfills, “about 85 percent…..nationwide the number is more like 40 percent. And that’s one of the reasons that people have looked at Wisconsin as the gold standard of what they call beneficial reuse of coal ash.”

But Clean Wisconsin found a correlation – the closer you are to a coal ash reuse sites out in the environment, the higher the level of molybdenum contamination – on average - in people’s drinking water.

 Cook says that discovery led Clean Wisconsin to look more closely at Wisconsin’s regulations around beneficial reuse, “and what we found is they’re not very protective at all of ground water.”  

Credit Clean Wisconsin
Map of Molybdenum Concentrations in Drinking Water in Southeast Wisconsin. (Private well test results from 967 unique well locations.

One in every five wells tested in the area exceeded Wisconsin's "healthy advisory level" of 90 parts per billion of molybdenum.

- Don't Drink the Water


Report’s recommendations include:

- Systematic testing of groundwater in areas where coal ash has been placed in the ground, including throughout Kenosha, Milwaukee, Racine, and Waukesha counties.

- Investigate historical coal ash use and dumping, make all records publicly available, and identify potentially dangerous placement.

- Establish complete reporting requirements for uses of coal ash. - Require coal ash to be tested for all chemicals with the potential to contaminate drinking water supplies.

- Require liners, leachate collection systems, caps, and additional groundwater monitoring for large structural fills, as well as place limitations on where structural fill can be used.

- Require a more accurate leach test to assess the toxicity of coal ash.

Tyson Cook says the Environmental Protection Agency is drafting a federal rule to regulate how coal ash can be used, “and we’re really optimistic that that rule is going help ensure safe drinking water, not just in Wisconsin but across the nation.”

In the meantime, Cook says Clean Wisconsin hopes to amass data from around the state, “and we’re asking people if they are getting their groundwater tested – and we recommend they get it tested for molybdenum, arsenic and boron – send us that information so we can better understand the extent of the problem statewide.”

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>