Read the full article by Isaac Wasserman (Wisconsin Watch)

“Carnetta Galvin and Melody Homesly stood on Galvin’s porch holding glasses of wine on an August evening. It was Galvin’s birthday, and the best friends’ laughter reverberated from their corner of the brick apartment and into the streets of the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood in Madison.

Across the street, tall grass surrounded a stagnant body of water that runs parallel to Galvin’s apartment building before fading into the distance beneath bridges and busy streets. That’s Starkweather Creek, historically fed by springs that have since disappeared or dramatically weakened. East and west branches of the creek wander through northeast Madison — including through the diverse Darbo-Worthington and Truax neighborhoods — before emptying into Lake Monona.

Starkweather Creek is not a source of drinking water, but it’s a critical recreation artery and habitat.

Galvin, who has lived near the creek for 16 years, did not know that it contains some of Wisconsin’s most polluted waters until a reporter told her. Nor had she heard of PFAS, the group of human-made chemicals that are drawing particular concerns surrounding the creek and across Wisconsin.

Shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are a nationwide scourge and sometimes called ‘forever chemicals’ because of how they accumulate in the body and persist in the environment without fully breaking down. Since the 1950s, companies have used PFAS to manufacture everything from cookware with nonstick coatings to food packaging and firefighting foam. Research has linked the substances to low birth weights, immune system challenges, thyroid problems, certain cancers and more.

PFAS are poorly absorbed through skin, but they are hazardous to ingest — whether by consuming contaminated water, fish or foods packaged in materials containing PFAS.  

In 2019, Starkweather Creek contained higher levels of PFOA and PFOS — two more scrutinized types of PFAS — than any other waters the state Department of Natural Resources tested that year. At the creek’s Fair Oaks Avenue crossing, the DNR detected levels of PFOS at 270 parts per trillion and PFOA at 43 ppt.

How much PFAS is considered dangerous? That’s complicated. During years of federal inaction, a few states have adopted their own PFAS regulations. Wisconsin has yet to do so but is working towards it. The DNR has proposed updates to include a state Department of Health Services-recommended limit of 20 ppt for combined PFOS and PFOA in groundwater.

The agency is also pursuing drinking water and surface water criteria for PFAS through a rulemaking process that the Republican-led Legislature lengthened a decade ago.

The DNR as of late September was tracking 86 known discharges of PFAS statewide.

Despite Dane County’s initial steps toward addressing Starkweather Creek’s pollution and engaging the public on the issue, awareness of the problem remains mixed among anglers, recreational users and other residents, Wisconsin Watch found. Some say local officials should act more urgently.

‘I feel disappointed and sad about not knowing what is affecting our health,’ Galvin said.

Pollution Complaints Span Decades

Formed by retreating glaciers that left a mix of oak savannah, prairie and nearly 4,000 acres of wetlands, the 24-square-mile Starkweather Creek Watershed saw dramatic change in the decades after European immigrants began settling in Madison. The creek was filled, dredged, channeled and fashioned into a drainage system for local farms. Later, industry, stores and homes sent wastewater in it.

Most of the watershed’s wetlands were drained or filled for development. Sediment and debris choke the creek’s bottom and shoreline, and its lower reach acts as a stormwater channel for Madison’s East Side — catching a stew of pollutants.

The DNR first added Starkweather Creek to its impaired waters list in 1998 due to low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, sediment and toxic metals. The agency has since documented chloride, E. coli and PFOS impairments. But pollution frustration swirled around the creek even decades earlier.”….