and also bring attention to Madison, we can work together to get this cleaned up and also prevent littering and the mess that has been built up.”
Powell hired Ida Jammeh, a woman from The Gambia, West Africa whose family were “homegrown” environmentalists in their village back home and Touyeng
Xiong, a Truax resident, as interns. And together, they engaged the neighborhoods.
“We talked with people to see if they knew where the creek was,” Powell said. “We asked them what they knew about it and what they did with it. We got lots and
lots of stories from people about the history of the creek. We talked with people out here a lot. We set up tables and heard some amazing stories about the
changes. They were from people who grew up here. We learned what people knew, what they thought about and what they wanted to do in terms of interest levels.
We had events. We went fishing with a bunch of people down at Olbrich Park. We had a big fish fry. And then one day, Touyeng came to me and said, ‘Maria, there
is a giant storm drain over there filled with trash. Let’s go clean it up for Earth Day 2018.’ It was fun and gratifying because you saw the trash, you cleaned it out
and it was done and clean. But it also begged the question, ‘Why is all of that trash there? Why isn’t the government doing more about this?’”
It was a time when several of the youth at Truax became aware of the environment and what was going on around them.
“The reason I got involved was because I lived here almost my whole life,” said Mack Rimson. “The person who inspired me was actually my cousin to watch my
surroundings and be observant. I think it is something that we need to handle because it could affect everyone.”
The MEJO engagement opened up other people’s eyes as well.
“We did surveys when I was an intern,” Jammeh said. “I was amazed how even people born and raised here didn’t know that Starkweather Creek was right
literally in their backyard. Some people thought it was a lake or a river. Some people think there is nothing living in there, that it was just water. And some
obviously felt it was dirty water. For me, water is very important because although I live in the U.S. and sometimes we don’t get to see how other people live, we
almost live in our own bubble. Even sometimes when there are droughts in California, people always joke. I realize that in some parts of the world, there literally
are water wars going on. And people are dying and people are becoming environmental refugees. Usually what happens, even in the First World countries, those
issues always affect poor people. It’s almost a class and race issue.”
MEJO was then able to get a small grant from the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, which is Lois Gibbs’ group. Gibbs helped organize the community
around the Love Canal cleanup. The group decided that they wanted to learn more about Starkweather Creek and PFAS after Madison well #15 was temporarily
shut down due to PFAS presence and until more testing was done. The MEJO group decided to get involved.
“We talked about it and went out to the creek,” Powell said. “We learned about the PFAS issue. And then, at one point, John said, ‘Let’s do some work with our
microscopes.’ We had just received the data from the creek. We had some water data from the creek that showed really high levels of PFAS in the creek. And so
when we thought about getting some muck from the creek and looking at it through microscopes, I said to myself, ‘I’m not sure we should do that. I’m not sure it is
safe. We don’t know what the levels are in the sediments.’ I had been asking the city, county and DNR to test the sediments for about two years by that point. So I
started asking them, ‘What do you know about what is in the sediments? Is it safe for kids to handle it?’ They kept saying, ‘Well, we don’t have any data, but we
think it is perfectly fine.’ I had been reading the scientific literature on it, so I said, ‘Well I’m not going to touch it.’ I talked to Tom, John and the kids at the center
and asked them what we should do. We decided this would be a good learning opportunity. Let’s go get some data ourselves. We decided my husband Jim would
do the testing. He was the sacrificial tester. We went to a few spots on the creek. We did the best we could. We didn’t have all of the proper equipment. The
government would not do this. This was a learning opportunity.”
Powell feels that the city, county and the air national guard should be doing what MEJO was doing, testing the sediment, which is more indicative of any long-term
problem as the PFAS leaches into the water as it passes over the sediment.
“Sediments are more of a record of what was released and where because they don’t move as far,” Powell said. “PFAS travels really far in water. They measure it
in water, but they really can’t say that PFAS in the water came from this or that source. Obviously they know it probably came from the base and the airport. But
sediments are more tied to a specific location. And what Brynn Bemis, city hydrologist said to me that day suggested to me that they don’t want to test sediments
because they could be liable. The sources of the PFAS are the airport and the military base, but the city, county and the military all used the burn pits at the airport.
They are all ultimately responsible and they know that.”
Jammeh was amazed at the governmental officials’ response.
“To me, the amazing thing was when we went to that meeting with the public health department,” Jammeh said. “I am from Africa and when you hear America, you
hear about all of these innovations and change. And then at the meeting, you have these guys sitting there. They are supposedly educated. And they are trying to
say that they don’t know how to properly fish and test that fish for PFAS data. It felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. On top of that, Madison is always known as this
progressive city and everyone’s head is almost in the sand. It’s almost like, ‘It’s there, but if we don’t test it, we don’t know about it and everything will be fine.
You don’t have to worry about it if you don’t test it.”
While not knowing something can lead to inaction, inaction can lead to more severe problems down the road in terms of the environment and the health of
Next issue: PFAS in the sediment
|there are potential adverse health impacts associated with PFAS exposure,including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol,
obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.”
And according to the Water Quality Association, “The EPA has established a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for the sum of
PFOA and PFOS.”
Heavy concentration of PFAS has been found in the wetlands and streams near and south of Truax Field that feed into Starkweather Creek, which in turn,
flows into Lake Mendota. These weltands and streams are also in proximity to the residences of low-income families and families of color. One of those
communities id Truax Apartments where the East Madison Community Center is located.
A couple of years ago, Maria Powell, founder of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization, became concerned with the level PFAS in Madison’s water
sources. Powell had grown up on the Fox River in Green Bay and became aware first hand of the negative health impact that contaminants like PFAS can
have on people’s health. It spurred her to get a degree in environmental studies from UW-Madison.
“I felt really strongly that the people who know a lot about water are the people who interact with it a lot: the people who fish, the people who swim in the
lakes and they are usually the ones who are most affected,” Powell said at the East Madison Community Center before stay in place guidelines were enacted.
“I have felt strongly throughout most of my work that you should engage with the people who are most affected and talk with them about it, help them engage
in it and learn it and help bring their voices into the process of doing something about it.”
In 2017, Powell got a grant to engage residents of Truax and Darbo-Worthington in environmental issues in proximity to their neighborhoods. East Madison
recruited some youth.
|Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
The COVID-19 pandemic has made many people aware of an “invisible
enemy” that lurks within the community that can be lethal to many people. We
can see, hear, feel, taste or smell the killing disease, but our science lets us
know that it is there and the recounting of the number of people experiencing
severe symptoms and death is usually enough to convince us that the science
But COVID-19 isn’t the only “invisible” health hazard lurking out there in Dane
County. In recent years, PFAS or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — a
chemical used in everything from firefighting foam to food packaging —
remains behind for a long time and accumulates in water, fish and sediment.
According to a 2014 CNN article, “A growing body of science has found that
"It seems like here in Madison, especially with this type of thing, they more or
less have areas where low-income people and people of color and
underprivileged people always get thrown to the wayside,” said Erics Peters,
assistant youth program manager. “That’s where you see places like the creek
where there is trash everywhere in the neighborhood and the water. I was
concerned that these guys would be unaware and not know what is going on.
In the future, there will be more issues with the water and health issues. By
getting them aware of it now, they can get accustomed to it and eventually take
it to the city and say, ‘You guys are putting low-income people and people of
color in these areas and you are not paying attention to the effect that this has
on the community in terms of health issues and opportunities that may be taken
away from them. When people have more knowledge and understanding of
what is going on, especially in these areas, they can do this for environmental
justice. It is an environmental rights issue because it is only low-income
African Americans who are being affected. If we can bring attention to them