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Private wells in area are found to be contaminated

Free testing kits available at Franklin, Oak Creek city halls

Feb. 12, 2013

The Department of Natural Resources continues to investigate the extent of well contamination in southeastern Wisconsin after a two-year study found elevated levels of molybdenum in groundwater in Milwaukee, Racine and Waukesha Counties.

Of the 24 samples the DNR has collected in Franklin, 10 have been found to be over the state standard of 40 micrograms per liter, said Eric Nitschke, director of the southeast region of the DNR in Milwaukee. The contamination levels in Franklin ranged from seven to 103 micrograms per liter.

The DNR has said people can keep drinking their water, except for those whose wells have excessive molybdenum. The agency needs more data from private well owners to find the origin of molybdenum.

"We're asking folks to test their wells, but this is not something to panic about," Nitschke said.

Safe in small doses

Molybdenum is a naturally occurring metal found in the earth's crust, and in some cases groundwater. It is an essential nutrient in the human diet, found in leafy vegetables, grains and meat, and included as a dietary supplement in multivitamins. But excessive levels are not healthy and can lead to digestive problems and gout. The metal also is found in man-made industrial sources such as coal ash.

Over the past two years, the DNR has detected elevated levels of molybdenum in 44 of 153 private wells. The areas affected are Franklin and Oak Creek in Milwaukee County; Muskego in Waukesha County; and the towns of Caledonia, Raymond and Norway in Racine County.

In January, the DNR notified administrators at Raymond School District in Racine County of high levels of molybdenum. The K-8 school quickly turned off all faucets and brought in bottled water. In a letter to students' parents, administrators said it was unclear when things would return to normal, and that it was not going to be a short-term problem.

Multiple sources likely

The DNR's report identified several potential sources of contamination, including the We Energies coal ash landfill and the Hunts Disposal Landfill, both in Caledonia.

For more than 20 years, We Energies has tested wells near its plant. In the early 90s, molybdenum was detected in 14 of 20 wells, and the utility has been supplying bottled water to about 20 homes since 2009, said Barry McNulty, We Energies spokesman. McNulty said the isotope testing in the DNR's report shows that We Energies is not the source of contamination.

The DNR could not pinpoint a single source and stated in the report that naturally occurring molybdenum or multiple human-produced sources are likely the sources.

There are about 2,700 private wells in Franklin, according to Bill Wucherer, a member of Franklin's Board of Health. Another 10,000 residents and business are supplied through the Oak Creek public water works system, which draws water from Lake Michigan. No traces of molybdenum have been found in the public water system.

Residents can take action

Wucherer said the Common Council has taken action on contamination concerns by raising awareness and offering free groundwater test kits. Residents can pick up the kits at City Hall and have the option to send their water for testing by the state lab in Madison for about $13.

"I bet you change your oil every 3,000 miles, and visit the dentist twice a year," Wucherer said. "Consider testing your water once a year too, it's just as important."

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