Kipp neighbors on S. Marquette St.
Houses in the shadow of the Madison-Kipp Corporation on South Marquette Street, where toxic soil vapors were found beneath the basements of several. PAT SCHNEIDER

Concerns over Madison-Kipp Corporation emissions have gone subterranean, adding another dimension to neighbors' long headache over possible pollution from the east-side factory.

News last month that elevated concentrations of toxic chemical vapors had been found in soil beneath the basements of three houses adjacent to the metal parts fabricating company lit the smoldering concerns of neighborhood activists, who in the past have battled Kipp over noise, odors and air emissions from its Atwood Avenue plant.

What's worrying neighbors this time are slightly elevated levels of the solvent tetrachlorethene, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says can cause neurological, liver and kidney damages when inhaled. The chemical's link to cancer is being investigated.

"Concern for potential adverse health impacts," as Mike Schmoller, a hydrologist with the Department of Natural Resources puts it, prompted Kipp to agree to install fan-powered venting systems in the basements of affected South Marquette Street properties to make sure any vapors that pass up through the soil and concrete are carried outside to dissipate. Blower systems will be installed in a total of five houses; testing for vapors is planned for the backyards of two others. Company officials say use of the chemical was halted years ago.

Some owners on whose properties elevated levels of the soil vapors were found say they're concerned about possible health impacts, but glad Kipp is installing the blower systems, according to this Wisconsin State Journal story.

But Sharon Helmus, who has lived 71 years in her Marquette Street home, is among neighbors suspicious of Kipp. Helmus wonders if the factory isn't responsible for sickening odors she has noticed over the years. She says she just found out about the soil vapor testing although it's been going on for years, and complains she got scant notice, too, of the April 18 meeting at Kipp to talk about the contamination.

A blower system will be installed in her home, but she's not convinced the company isn't getting away with something.

"Everybody is afraid of Kipp, everybody's afraid to fight them," says Helmus.

But fight Kipp neighbors have.

Complaints over excessive noise from the plant date back to the mid-90s, when neighbors' protests sparked revised noise regulations so strict the business community fought them back for a decade. By 2005, neighbors organized as Clean Air Madison to fight for tighter restrictions on emissions from the plant. The group, with waxing and waning support from city and state officials, managed to get a survey on neighborhood health problems and special air monitoring, but ultimately could not stop state permits allowing the company to increase particle emissions and its use of chlorine gas.

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Clean Air Madison's activities flagged in the past few years, but news of the soil vapor contamination on neighboring properties has some members wondering whether long-indentified groundwater contamination from Kipp processes could be spreading and jeopardizing drinking water. Maria Powell, a founding member of Clean Air Madison, says a public discussion is needed about groundwater pollution at Kipp and its potential impact not only on the health of immediate neighbors, but also on drinking water.

Drinking water is not at risk, Schmoller says. "We don't have any concern that contamination from Kipp is impacting city wells," he says. The DNR tracks the progress of a program to remediate groundwater contamination through a series of monitoring wells on the Kipp property.

Kipp vice president Mark Meunier says it's not even certain that the vapor contamination is linked to Kipp, but the company is paying for the blower systems anyway. "We're taking responsbility."

"The things they are finding now are from the sins of the past," he says, adding that the building venting system that led to contamination at the Kipp site was a standard practice at the time. Kipp stopped using tetrachlorethene two decades ago, Meunier says.

But no matter what the DNR or health officials say about the limits of risks or the company's culpability, some people won't be satisfied, Meunier says. "We're portrayed as bad guy no matter what we do."