On a warm night in mid-June, a small group of citizens are gathered at a city streets division building for an update on rising levels of the contaminant PCE in Well 15, which supplies much of Madison's east side.
They are members of a citizen advisory panel that meets to provide public input on issues affecting Madison's water quality.
Panel members listen as a city consultant details plans for a report that will look at why the level of PCE - a probable carcinogen - has been rising since the 1990s. The study is a direct result of pressure from these citizens and represents the first time the city has launched a formal study to try to find a contaminant's source; preliminary results are expected on July 20.
At the meeting, the citizens examine diagrams, look at soil testers called Gore-Sorbers and ask questions. "How much do those cost?" one asks.
"Is any attempt made to log the soils that are encountered when they drill that little hole for the sample?" someone else asks.
In the last few years, the water utility has launched numerous citizen advisory panels, including the East Side Water Supply CAP, which helped assess the east side's long-term water needs and spawned the Well 15 citizen group. The panels are project-specific and usually go dormant when the matter concludes. The citizen's group for Well 15 has been meeting since March of last year and is the only water utility advisory plan active at the moment. A core group of four to five citizens typically show up for the meetings.
Getting more citizens involved in water issues grew out of the water utility's plan in 2007 to drill a new well on the near west side north of the Glenway Golf Course. A group of citizens opposed the well, prompting former Ald. Tim Gruber to introduce in 2008 a resolution calling on the water utility to come up with a formal citizen participation process. The utility is now looking for another location for that well.
Formally involving citizens is meant to stave off "nobody told me about that" reactions to utility projects, says water utility board member Dan Melton.
The citizen groups also formed in response to the utility's reputation for botching communication with the public, particularly when manganese turned up in several city wells in 2005. At the time the utility was under the direction of general manager David Denig-Chakroff, who left in 2007.
Ald. Joe Clausius, whose district includes Well 15, says the advisory panels present a contrast to the lack of transparency he claims plagued the utility in the past: "This is the approach to take."
Sue Pastor lives in the area served by Well 15 and has been involved in the citizen advisory panel for the last year.
"I think this has been a really good model for public participation," says Pastor, who was also a member of the east-side citizen advisory panel. Between the two groups she has attended some 16 meetings.
"Many people put a lot of hours into this," says Pastor, citing in particular Dan Moser, who created a cost-benefit analysis of mitigation options on Well 15, entirely on his own time.
Moser is an urban planner with a master's degree from UW-Madison whose concern about lagging investment in public infrastructure inspires him to volunteer. "I can't think of a more critical civic matter than water," Moser says.
For her part, Pastor was inspired to get involved by the protests over Gov. Scott Walker's bill curtailing collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
"I probably would not have made the decision to come home from work and go to all those meetings had it not been for the actions of the governor and the Legislature and the uprising last winter," says Pastor. "The cost of non-involvement came home to me in a very powerful way."
The PCE levels in Well 15 hit an all-time high of 3.9 parts per billion in 2011. The Environmental Protection Agency-mandated maximum contaminant level is 5 parts per billion, but the federal agency says the goal is zero.
Dry cleaners use PCE, also called perchloroethylene, perc and tetrachloroethylene, in their cleaning processes, and garages and factories use the compound as a degreaser.
The chemical has been tied to worker health issues and has contaminated groundwater in cities across the country. By 2023 California will ban the use of PCE in dry cleaning, and as recently as 2009 the Obama administration considered a ban or partial ban of the chemical.
The chemical is now listed as a hazardous waste that dry cleaners and others must track and properly dispose of by shipping to designated treatment and disposal facilities in government-mandated shipping containers. It cannot be dumped outdoors. But likely it once was.
Environmental engineer David Senfelds, whose consulting firm, AECOM, is handling the $80,000 study for the city, says there's a good chance the contamination in Well 15 traces to PCE usage from decades ago.
The study includes soil testing and an analysis of whether the utility can extend the well's casing liner to pull water from a deeper aquifer to avoid the contaminant.
AECOM has produced a list of 32 businesses and other operations, some of which no longer exist, to investigate as possible sources of the contaminant. If the study pinpoints any source, responsible parties could be forced to fund a cleanup. "I do fully expect that we would identify a source or sources," says Senfelds.
But water utility officials are not as confident. "We understand that the probability is low in finding a definitive site," says Al Larson, principal engineer.
Whatever the outcome of the study, Well 15, at 3900 E. Washington Ave., will be fitted with a $2.4 million air stripper, a stainless steel contraption that will clean most of the PCE from the water. Architecture firm Potter Lawson is designing an addition to the well that will house the air stripper. The utility expects the air stripper to be in place by June 2013, and says it will cost around $20,000 a year to operate.
The air stripper is the first for any Madison well and is the utility's bulwark against having to shut down Well 15 if PCE levels were to top 5 parts per billion. The well is the "workhorse" of the east side and is "running more than it should now," according to utility board member Melton. "It's too big a risk" to chance losing the well, he adds.
Jim Wickert, a member of the Well 15 advisory panel, went on a water utility-sponsored field trip to Cedarburg last fall to look at an air stripper operating in a municipal well there. Wickert lives near Well 15 and was worried about the noise a stripper would generate. After the trip, he determined that noise is a non-issue.
Moser and Pastor praised the CAP process, but Pastor says communication with the public is still not perfect. After more than a year of participation on the citizen advisory panel, she says she had no idea the June 19 Common Council vote on wireless water meters was coming up.
"This is the antithesis of the more democratic process that should include substantial citizen involvement," she says. "Am I happy the utility is proceeding with soil samples at the most likely sites generating the Well 15 contamination? Yes. Does that mean everything is fine? Definitely not."
In fact, 33 Madison residents, including Pastor, submitted a petition to the Public Service Commission last week asking the agency to halt installation of the meters, slated to begin this month, until the PSC conducts an investigation into their "health and safety."