Grassroots Profile: Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger

Grassroots Profile: Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger

by Laura Olah, Executive Director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger

Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB) was organized in 1990 when the community learned private drinking water wells near the Badger Army Ammunition Plant were polluted with high levels of cancer-causing chemicals. Although the Army documented extensive soil and ground water contamination, the information about the pollutants never reached nearby residents, and, as a result, three families living near the plant drank poisoned water for over 15 years. Levels of carbon tetrachloride were found in drinking water at 80 parts per billion; the safe standard is only 5 parts per billion. The founders, Alison Jones Pena and Laura Olah, believed community involvement could have prevented this tragedy and consequently organized CSWAB both to empower and to protect nearby residents and plant workers from further harm.

Dozens of areas within the plant are polluted with solvents, toxic metals, and explosive wastes – the environmental legacy of production years that spanned 3 wars and more than 50 years. During active production years, facilities like Badger’s Old Acid Area were used for production of nitric acid from ammonia. During this process, poisonous nitrogen oxides were released from rooftop vents. These gases had a red color and were irritating, and during temperature inversions, the Old Acid Area was enveloped in a brown haze. Open burning of waste propellants dispersed metal-contaminated ash to the surrounding environment.

Contamination occurred in areas such as the Propellant Burning Grounds, located on the west side of the plant near Highway 12. It has been estimated that as much as 500 gallons per week of 2,6-dinitrotoluene, benzene, diphenylamine and other cancer-causing chemicals used in the manufacture of propellants were dumped in a series of waste pits at the Propellant Burning Grounds from 1966-1970. Over the years, these chemicals soaked into and affected the soils deep underground. We now know the waste pits are the principal source of a three-mile long plume of contaminated ground water that has moved offsite and has reached the Wisconsin River, polluting private drinking water wells in its path.

Both carbon tetrachloride and chloroform, the chemicals discovered in nearby private wells in May 1990, can cause cancer and other illnesses in humans, depending on the amount and duration of the exposure. Liver tumors are most likely, but tumors also could form in lungs and kidneys, state health officials say.

Over the last ten years, CSWAB has successfully faced these and other challenges with great success. The group’s accomplishments include gaining the Army’s withdrawal of a proposal to incinerate 1,000,000 pounds of waste munitions, blocking a permit to open burn 2,500 pounds per day of hazardous waste, and obtaining comprehensive water testing for neighbors living near Wisconsin’s Badger Army Ammunition Plant.

CSWAB continues its fight to build a sustainable future on the prairie now occupied by the Badger plant. These lands represent an opportunity for our community to work together toward a common goal — a cooperative project, bringing together cultures, resources, and a shared land conservation ethic. Together, we are stronger in our fight for a safe, healthy environment.

The group believes the impending closure of Badger Army Ammunition Plant as a military facility provides a remarkable and unique opportunity to heal the land and the community. In 1941, local author August Derleth wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt about the proposed new munitions plant to be built near Merrimac: “You can understand with what apprehension we look forward to the influx of elements which may work…to bring about such change here that not even the inexorability of time can ever again rectify the errors that may be done.”

We now face the challenges foretold so many years ago.

For more information contact: Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, E12629 Weigand’s Bay South Merrimac, WI 53561. Phone: (608) 643-3124. Or, visit the following website:



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.