Scientists find PCBs 10,000 meters below the ocean’s surface

Scientists find PCBs 10,000 meters below the ocean’s surface

Much of our work in Madison, Wisconsin in recent years has focused on preventing toxic contaminants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) from being released into the environment and entering waterways–and eventually ending up in fish people eat.

Government agencies have told us repeatedly when we’ve raised concerns about PCBs moving into waterways from industrial sources that they will not move because they are not very water soluble and tend to stick to soils. While it is true that PCBs aren’t highly water soluble, and tend to attach to soils and other organic matter–it is well known that soils and other materials with PCBs attached to them can and do move into waterways. Also, it is well-established by scientific studies that PCBs are semi-volatile and can travel through air for long distances.

Now, further refuting the argument that PCBs do not move, a Washington Post article by Chelsea Harvey reports that scientists in the UK have discovered PCBs and related compounds PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers)  “in some of the ocean’s deepest trenches, previously thought to be nearly untouched by human influence” at levels that rival some of the most polluted waterways on the planet.”

If PCBs do not move far from their source, as Madison’s government officials keep telling us, how did they get to this remote place? Clearly, PCBs can move.

Why does it matter? PCBs and PBDEs, according to the article, “may cause a variety of adverse health effects, including neurological, immune and reproductive issues and even cancer (in humans).” Further, both PCBs and and PBDEs “have the potential to remain intact for long periods of time” and tend to “bioaccumulate,” meaning they can build up in organisms over time. The article cited a study showing that certain organic pollutants, including PCBs and PBDEs “are widespread in fish throughout the world.”

Read the whole Washington Post article here

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No, chemical industry, you can’t have your cake and eat it too (Part 1)

No, chemical industry, you can’t have your cake and eat it too (Part 1)

Richard Denison, Ph.D., Environmental Defense Fund

There is an extreme anti-regulatory and anti-science bandwagon moving fast through Washington, and much of the chemical industry seems to have jumped right on board.  We’re also seeing growing signs of industry pushback against even modest early actions EPA is taking to implement the Lautenberg Act, which reformed the obsolete Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and passed with strong bipartisan support only last June.

Read more here

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Send Your Valentines for Babies’ Hearts

Send Your Valentines for Babies’ Hearts

From Laura Olah, Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger.

EPA will be holding a public meeting on Feb. 14 (Valentine’s Day) to receive input on its efforts to establish the scope of risk evaluations for 10 toxic chemicals including the solvents TCE and PCE. This is a great opportunity to raise awareness about the risk of infant heart defects from prenatal exposure to these highly toxic compounds.

YOU can make a difference for babies’ hearts… send this Valentine to EPA!

You can make your own Valentine or print this one. Add your personal message and sign, including your mailing address!

MAIL your paper heart Valentine to:

EPA Office of Pollution Prevention & Toxics
c/o Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger
E12629 Weigands Bay South
Merrimac, WI 53561

 WOW!  We will make sure your Valentine is HAND DELIVERED at the Feb. 14 meeting in Washington DC!

In order for this campaign to be the most effective, we need LOTS OF HEARTS !!!

WANT TO HELP EVEN MORE?  Share this message with your friends and family and ask them to participate too!


Public meeting info including registration and deadlines:

Health info from:

Web address for Valentine to EPA:

This Action Alert is also posted on our website at:

Laura Olah, Executive Director

Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB)

Coordinator, Cease Fire Campaign

E12629 Weigand’s Bay S, Merrimac, WI 53561


No effort, no matter how small is wasted when it is in the service of a clean and just world.

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It Is Time to Reform Landscape Ordinances – Part 3

It Is Time to Reform Landscape Ordinances – Part 3

Photo: Tim Wong’s bush has grown next to his neighbor’s driveway for over 20 years without causing any problem.

By Janette Rosenbaum

The first two parts of this series reviewed how Madison’s vegetation ordinances came to be, whether they are benefitting the public, and how enforcement of them might be reformed. This third part examines a specific case of enforcement.

Tim Wong is a member of the Schenks-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara (SASY) neighborhood association, which conducted the violation survey described in Part 1 of this article. He is also one of the residents of that neighborhood who received complaints about his yard.

Wong quickly resolved the complaint, which regarded flowers in his terrace being too tall. Then, Building Inspection (BI) supervisor Kyle Bunnow came to his property to “make sure he understood the rules”. During that visit, Bunnow pointed to a bush in a vision triangle in Wong’s yard, which had existed in that location for over 20 years without issue, and declared, “That has to go.”

The case ended up in court, where Bunnow constructed the following story in his testimony: Suppose that a car is backing out of an adjacent driveway, while a child is approaching on the sidewalk. The motorist and pedestrian do not see each other, because of the bush, and tragedy results.

This hypothetical danger ignores the following facts: First, Wong does not own a motor vehicle and has a tree growing in his driveway. The neighbor’s driveway, which more closely abuts the bush, is occupied by a picnic table most of the year; the neighbors only park vehicles in their driveway during winter, when the leafless bush is nearly transparent. Second, another of Wong’s neighbors testified that she has never seen any motor vehicle in Wong’s driveway. Third, as described in Part 2 of this article, almost no motor vehicle accidents anywhere have been attributed to the presence of a plant.

It is thus extremely doubtful that the destruction of Wong’s bush would result in any benefit to traffic safety – or to public health, safety, welfare, or morals more generally. Another feature of Wong’s case — to which we shall return in a moment — also illustrates the questionable legal grounds on which Madison’s vegetation ordinances are enforced.

The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that all citizens must be treated equally under the law. Harvey Jacobs, an expert on property rights and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains how this relates to a citizen’s use of their private property: Use of private property is controlled by local zoning laws, but because people own property in different zones, they do not all have the same rights as to how they can use their property. In the 1920’s, the Supreme Court ruled that this is not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, so long as everyone owning property in the same type of zone is subject to the same restrictions on the use of their property.

To return to our main topic, this should mean that Madison’s vegetation ordinances are acceptable under the Fourteenth Amendment, so long as everyone in the same neighborhood is held to the same standards. But to return to the case of Mr. Wong, this does not appear to be how enforcement is handled.

During that meeting with Supervisor Bunnow, Wong pointed to a bush on a neighboring property, which was clearly overhanging the sidewalk. Although this is a violation of the ordinances, Bunnow stated that he “had no problem” with it. It thus does not appear as though Wong and his neighbor were treated equally.

The Fourteenth Amendment sometimes allows for inequal treatment based on special circumstances; perhaps one of those exceptions applies here. Some examples of valid inequal treatment are as follows: One restaurant might be allowed to serve alcohol on their premises, while another restaurant in the same neighborhood is not, on the basis of only the first restaurant possessing a liquor license. Or, a residential property owner might receive special permission to violate setback ordinances due to their property having unusual topography.

The inequal treatment of Wong and his neighbor might be valid if, for example, the neighbor had a natural yard permit. This permit allows Madison residents to be subject to a somewhat more lenient set of vegetation ordinances. However, since the permit exception was created several decades ago, the city has issued perhaps 100 such permits. This is hardly enough to cover all the violations in the SASY neighborhood, let alone the many yards all across the city that are only in compliance with the ordinances if they have a permit. It is thus unlikely that Wong’s neighbor has a permit.

It is also possible that Wong’s neighbor had not received any complaint about their property. However, this does not seem like a reasonable criterion on which to discriminate between Wong and his neighbor. Neither bush had received a complaint (remember that Wong’s complaints were about another aspect of his property, which he addressed), and at any rate it is doubtful that any of the complaints in the neighborhood reflected a valid use of the police power to begin with.

Third, it could be the case that the discrimination reflected intelligent enforcement of the ordinances – that is, Wong’s bush was judged to be an actual hazard, while the neighbor’s bush was not. However, as described above, there is very little evidence that Wong’s bush was in any way endangering anyone.

In conclusion, the ordinances must be enforced through fair and reasonable criteria, so that true safety hazards are addressed while technical violations are left alone. The current enforcement practices do not support this goal. While the city may not have the resources to find and resolve all true safety hazards, shifting resources away from the senseless prosecution of technical violations would surely help to address the shortfall.



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EPA proposes ban on TCE in vapor degreasing

EPA proposes ban on TCE in vapor degreasing

From The National Law Review.

On January 11, 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would be issuing a rule proposing to prohibit the manufacture (including import), processing, and distribution in commerce of trichloroethylene (TCE) for use in vapor degreasing.

Read more and link to the proposed rule here. Also, see the “Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families” statement on this development here.

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It Is Time to Reform Landscape Ordinances – Part 2  

It Is Time to Reform Landscape Ordinances – Part 2  

Photo: Tree-lined streets like this one have safer traffic flow than streets without trees.

By Janette Rosenbaum.

Part 1 of this article described Madison’s vegetation ordinances, how public opinion is now at odds with those ordinances, and how the ordinances are still used to enforce the preferences of the minority. This second part looks at the reasoning underlying the ordinances and their enforcement.

All cities in the United States are enabled to pass and enforce laws under what is known as the police power. This power authorizes a city to create laws that are intended to protect public health, safety, welfare, or morals.

It is doubtful whether Madison’s vegetation ordinances achieve these ends, or even whether they were originally believed to do so. Like many cities, Madison has long banned tall grass on private property. But in 1978, Madison became the first US city to reverse this ban – at least partially.

In 1976, Madison had attempted to eliminate the ban on tall grass in yards, but the effort failed, due to the concerns of those who believed tall grass would attract rats and adversely affect property values. In 1978, a compromise was reached: Madison residents would be allowed to have tall grass in their yards as part of a mindful effort to be more environmentally responsible, while tall grass resulting from neglect of property would be banned. A permitting process would be used to distinguish between one and the other.

What is fascinating is that it was already well known at the time that tall grass does not attract rats, reduce property values, or cause other negative effects commonly attributed to it. This holds true whether the tall grass is part of a well-maintained prairie, or whether it is an overgrown lawn.

40 years later, the science has not changed. There is now even more evidence – including Madison’s own experience – that no harm of any kind results from tall grass. These facts are laid out in the city’s own publications on the topic. Yet, as the city considers eliminating the permit requirement and allowing tall grass as a matter of right, opponents of the change continue to raise the discredited issues of rats and property values.

It is thus not only true that banning tall grass does not contribute to public health and safety, but that Madison has known this for decades. Other vegetation-related ordinances that are still on the books suffer from a similar problem.

One example is the “vision triangle” ordinance, which bans tall plants near intersections, or near the juncture of a driveway and a sidewalk. The ostensible reason for this is that tall plants could interfere with visibility for motorists and pedestrians, leading to accidents.

However, there is little evidence that such a risk exists. Investigating traffic accident statistics shows that relatively few accidents are attributed to poor visibility – and within the list of causes of poor visibility, plants rank very low.

The leading cause of traffic accidents is driver distraction and driver error. Research suggests that plants actually ameliorate these hazards. A concept known as Attention Restoration Theory posits that nature – including plants, especially those growing in their natural forms – is so easy for our brains to process, that looking at it actually helps us recover from the fatigue caused by activities such as reading difficult materials and planning for the future. This boost to our mental energy increases our ability to pay attention and make good decisions. In other words, there is evidence that looking at plants makes us better, safer drivers.

Further evidence for this has been found in studies specifically looking at plants and driving behavior. For example, drivers travel more slowly along tree-lined streets. Motorists on highways bordered by wildflowers find it easier to pay attention than those driving on highways with mowed edges. And sections of freeway with forested medians were found to have no more accidents than sections of the same freeway where the median was landscaped with turf grass.

While it certainly may be the case that some specific plant in a vision triangle may be creating a hazard that outweighs the benefits, applying the vision triangle ordinance as a blanket rule is in fact likely to lead to reduced traffic safety. The ordinances need to be enforced intelligently in order to serve their intended purpose.

The third article in this series will tell the story of a resident who was prosecuted for a vision triangle violation, and question whether it was legal for the city to bring this case.


Postscript: On January 3, 2017, Madison officially adopted an update to the 1978 requirement that property owners obtain a permit to have tall grass in their yard. Now, in certain limited circumstances, tall grass will be allowed without a permit. An upcoming article in this series will review the new ordinances and question whether the change will make it easier to have an environmentally-friendly yard in Madison.

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It’s Time to Reform Landscape Ordinances – Part 1

It’s Time to Reform Landscape Ordinances – Part 1

By Janette Rosenbaum

In Madison, you cannot have any plants in your terrace within two feet of the street. You cannot have any plants along the bottom of your driveway that are more than two feet tall. And you cannot have a tree branch over the sidewalk, unless it is higher than seven feet (even on those occasional days when it is loaded with snow).

All of these situations are illegal under Madison’s city ordinances. Obviously, there are many violations of these ordinances in our neighborhoods. Because the city’s Department of Building Inspection (BI) does not have the resources to search for and prosecute them all, it relies on citizen reports to locate and address violations.

This report-driven process might work fine if most of the violations were true public safety hazards created by negligent property owners. However, this is not the case. In the several decades since these ordinances were passed, public opinion has increasingly turned away from manicured lawns and geometrical hedges. Instead, today’s Madison residents want a city filled with abundant vegetation.

This was demonstrated by the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association (SASYNA), located on the east side of the isthmus. During the summer of 2015, several members of the association surveyed the main street in their neighborhood, and found that 65 out of 91 houses — or 71% — were in violation of at least one of the ordinances.

Normally, when an ordinance is so out of step with public opinion, an understanding develops that the ordinance is no longer enforced – or, at least, is enforced only when the violation constitutes a true public safety hazard. But this is not the case in Madison either. Rather, the citizen-report process works as follows: Any Madison resident can use the complaint form to report a violation on private property in the city. They can do so anonymously, and they are not required to demonstrate that the violation is creating a safety hazard — or even to claim that this is the case. Thus, a resident can complain about a property because they simply do not like the vegetation… or because they simply do not like the owner of the property. There is very little risk of repercussion, and BI is virtually required to take the complainant’s side.

Abuse of the complaint system is not a hypothetical concern. Despite the SASY neighborhood’s overwhelming “vote” for more plants, last summer dozens of properties received complaints, possibly from a single resident. Although even a BI employee agreed that the anonymous complainant(s) just had “nothing better to do”, a number of the complainees were forced to remove gardens that they had worked hard on and enjoyed. Some spent months fighting legal battles to keep their favorite plants.

Many of these ordinances are currently being revised, and potentially will be eliminated. In the meantime, two reforms to the enforcement process would help to bring it in line with modern-day opinion, and protect Madison’s majority from the tyranny of the handful who still prefer rigidly-maintained vegetation.

First, BI employees should be trained to distinguish between a technical violation and a true public safety hazard. Second, complainants should be required to give their names when filling out the form, and could be asked to indicate whether they’ve attempted to resolve the safety problem — if indeed there is a safety problem — directly with their neighbor. These simple changes would limit abuse of the system, and would help to strike a balance between public safety and the ecological sustainability that residents clearly want.

An upcoming second part of this article will review why Madison’s vegetation ordinances exist, and whether they are achieving their purposes.



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EPA proposes the first chemical ban in 27 years–TCE

EPA proposes the first chemical ban in 27 years–TCE

From Environmental Defense Fund, by Jennifer McPartland, Ph.D., a Senior Scientist with the Health Program.

Today, EPA issued a proposed rule to ban uses of trichloroethylene (TCE) as a spot cleaning agent in dry cleaning and as an aerosol spray degreaser in commercial and consumer settings. This marks the first time in 27 years EPA is proposing to restrict the use of a chemical and represents a significant milestone under the Lautenberg Act.

The proposed ban is long overdue for a chemical that is highly toxic and produced in very high volumes (255 million pounds annually). TCE is classified as a known human carcinogen by numerous authoritative bodies, including the National Toxicology Program (NTP), the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Many studies of TCE also reveal additional health impacts including but not limited to immune toxicity, developmental toxicity (e.g., fetal cardiac defects), and neurotoxicity (e.g., Parkinson’s disease).

Read the rest here.

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What a Surprise!! More PCBs found in city-owned Kipp raingarden…

What a Surprise!! More PCBs found in city-owned Kipp raingarden…

Photo: Madison-Kipp raingarden in August 2014; behind it, Kipp was building a new curb and fence and paving parking lots, without the required approval and permits. MGE was digging around transformers, with dirt all over the parking lot, draining into the raingarden…


Sadly, the long and convoluted saga of the Madison-Kipp raingarden–otherwise known as the Toxic Sludgegarden– is not yet over. See previous stories here and here and here.

This past summer, we asked city officials if they had tested for PCBs in the Kipp raingarden, which the company leases from the city. This testing was required by their city lease, signed in June 2015. Over a year later, in mid-October 2016 (in response to our repeated queries?) the city finally tested for PCBs in the raingarden. So the city lease was violated from June 2015 to June 2016, and city officials apparently didn’t mind. Would they have even tested if citizens didn’t ask about it?

On November 17, 2016 John Hausbeck from Public Health Madison Dane County (PHMDC) informed city and state officials that the October tests found 7 ppm (mg/kg) of PCBs in shallow soils about 18 inches from the stormwater pipe that drains into the raingarden from the Kipp site–see map and results. This level is nearly ten times above the allowed industrial “residual contaminant level” (RCL) that city and state officials agreed to use for this area (0.74 ppm)–and over 30 times the residential RCLs (0.22 ppm) that are more appropriate for this public area, which is zoned residential. The reasons government officials decided to use industrial standards for this area–and who actually made these decisions–are not clear (see below).[1]

Where did these PCBs come from since the last time the raingarden was tested—in May 2014? Perhaps this timeline and photos can provide some clues…

The city lease says that if contamination is found in the raingarden, “the Lessee” (which is Kipp) “shall also determine the source of the contamination…” Hausbeck speculated on the sources: “It is not clear where these PCBs have come from…All the samples were collected in the top one foot, so they should all represent clean topsoil.” He listed some possible sources. “They may have been carried by storm water into the rain garden from adjacent excavations, or come from contaminated sediment that entered the storm sewer pipe from breaks that were later fixed. Both of these potential sources were stopped last year and are no longer adding PCBs to the rain garden.” Was he referring to this pipe?

The “hotspot” found in October will be excavated at some point in the future, and further tests will be done. Will warning signs be placed along the bike path during excavations? Citizens asked that warning signs be placed along the path before and during past PCB excavations, so people could avoid the area if they wanted—and warn children not to play there—but the city refused, due to concerns about their legal liabilities. Neighbors posted their own signs, which were taken down the next day.

Why aren’t residential PCB standards being used? Did the DNR closure supercede the city lease? Who made these decisions?

Sadly, city and state officials have chosen not to err on the side of protecting the public in their decisions about what RCLs to use. Neighbors and other community members have argued repeatedly since the PCBs were discovered that the city should use the lower, more protective residential RCLs for the raingarden and the grassy area along the bike path, in line with DNR policy (again, see footnote 1). But apparently citizens’ input about how much toxic contamination should remain on public land does not matter to our government officials.

Oddly, in March 2015, Kipp and DNR agreed on residential standards for the area long the bike path, but something changed after that.[2] The DNR has leeway to ask for an even more stringent RCL for such areas—and some experts think that would be appropriate for this heavily-used public area next to a community center, a children’s splash pad, a compost area, and many homes (see footnotes).[3],[4]. The city, which owns the raingarden and bike path areas, also presumably has the authority to ask that a lower RCL be used.

In fact, Kipp’s final lease with the city says the following, on pg. 5:

“The City shall, in consultation with the Lessee, conduct periodic sampling of the Biobasin for new environmental contamination. If the annual environmental sampling indicates new PCB contamination to the Biobasin, the Lessee shall remediate the contamination according to local, State, and federal standards… New contamination shall be defined as shallow soil sample results above the DNR residential direct contact standard (RCL) for PCBs.”    

Confusing matters further, as far as the city-owned Kipp driveway area next to the PCB-contaminated ditch along the bike path, the lease requires cleanup to residential standards in the future; it says on pg. 2: “WHEREAS, the DNR, the City and the Lessee have agreed that the Parking Improvements shall serve as an environmental cap throughout the remainder of the Lease term, and any further renewals or extensions thereof, and that upon the expiration or termination of the Lease the Lessee shall remove the Parking Improvements, remediate the contaminated soil to the DNR approved, site-specific, nonindustrial (residential) direct contact standard, and restore the Leased Premises as hereinafter provided, unless otherwise agreed to by the City and DNR.”

So why is the city only requiring cleanup to industrial standards in the raingarden and along the grassy areas next to the bike path? Was the change to industrial standards “agreed to by the City and DNR” in the months between when the lease was signed and the DNR closure was approved? Did the DNR closure of the raingarden and bike path areas supercede the city lease?

Three months ago, we asked city officials to explain this, but have not received a response.

Why was closure granted without testing? Why isn’t stormwater from Kipp tested?

In June 2016, after Kipp asked for “closure” for the raingarden and bikepath areas, I asked DNR officials Linda Hanefeld and Mike Schmoller how they knew the raingarden wasn’t re-contaminated since May 2014. They didn’t respond. The DNR South Central Closure Committee, which Hanefeld and Schmoller are both on, approved closure for the area in July 2016.

This sad saga raises many questions about city and DNR decisionmaking and whose interests they serve. Wouldn’t it have been a better idea to test raingarden soils after all the excavations were done, before leasing the area to Kipp, and before approving closure? Doesn’t it seem like common sense—as citizens have asked repeatedly for years, to no avail—to periodically test the stormwater draining from Kipp into the raingarden to make sure this water is not re-contaminating the soils there? Apparently, according to the “common sense” of city and state regulators, NO.

Shouldn’t the citizens our city, county, and state government officials serve have some say in these decisions?

[1] DNR NR 720 says “Responsible parties shall classify the land use of a site or facility as industrial if all of the following criteria are met: 1. The site or facility is currently zoned for, or otherwise officially designated for, industrial use. 2. More stringent non−industrial residual contaminant levels for soil are not necessary to protect public health on or off the site or facility. Note: Situations where a non−industrial classification would apply include site or facilities which could otherwise be classified as industrial, but where proximity to non−industrial land use, such as residential housing located across the street, makes a non−industrial classification more appropriate.” (emphasis added)

[2] A memo from Kipp’s consultant Arcadis to Schmoller dated March 13, 2015 said that the grassy area on city property along the bike path would be considered residential– and residential RCLs would be used.

[3]November 2014 USEPA – DNR agreement on PCB cleanup,” says “EPA may require a cover or a cleanup to more stringent cleanup levels than are otherwise required based on the proximity to areas such as residential dwellings, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, playgrounds, etc.” and “depending on the form or isomer of PCB, the RCL for non-industrial sites without a cover can be as low as 0.0000341 mg/kg.” City and state agencies should be requiring PCB congener testing, but they refuse to do so.



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