MERRIMAC — A letter form the U.S. Army sent to Sen. Tammy Baldwin has some some residents here concerned a public drinking water system near the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant might not be built.
The letter, dated Jan. 17, 2017, states “Approval of the decision document that would typically start the implementation of the drinking water system has proven more complex than originally anticipated” and that a “team of environmental program and legal professionals at Army headquarters and the Department of Defense are in the process of performing a comprehensive review of the actions that led to the proposed drinking water system.”
That comprehensive review process has town of Merrimac resident Gene Franks worried.
“I’m quite concerned the Army is trying to renege on its agreement to provide safe drinking water to the town of Merrimac,” said Franks, who is a member of the local group Citizens for Practical Water Solutions. “A tremendous amount of work has been done in the community to get to this point, and without the drinking water system, we are left wondering if there is a danger of it coming to our homes.”
The Merrimac Town Board approved the establishment of a water district and a water district governing board in May 2015. It was the first major step in working with the U.S. Army to build a water system as part of a groundwater contamination strategy developed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2010. Since then, the U.S. Army has stated it would pay for and build a water system that would serve portions of the towns of Merrimac, Sumpter and Prairie du Sac. The cost for the system originally was estimated at about $20 million.
The public water system was proposed to limit any future impact on rural residents' private wells from groundwater contamination spreading beneath the former ammunition plant.
U.S. Army Representative Mike Sitton said the review is just another step in the lengthy process.
“There is a whole other level of review,” Sitton said. “We have to follow the law; we have a legal process and dollar limitations. Those individuals have a responsibility to review our work.”
Merrimac Town Administrator Tim McCumber said he isn’t surprised by the Army’s response. “I think what got our attention was the tone of the two most recent letters,” he said. “First they are going ahead with it and now they are going to review the process. Well, it’s already been reviewed several times.”
McCumber said it took nearly five years to bring the proposal to a petition. “Then they made the petition, we’re ready to move, and now they want to approve it again. I think the town's been pretty patient.”
Franks likened the situation to that of Flint, Michigan, where government officials chose to switch the source of residents' water supply, only to learn the new source contaminated people's drinking water.
“The government tried to get around it, and they fell on their faces,” he said about the Michigan city. “The same thing is going to happen in Merrimac if we let the Army pull up and ignore this thing.”
McCumber said the process has left Merrimac residents with questions about what to do with their wells and water supply.
“Every time a new home is built – and we had 13 last year – they all had to sink new wells, and then the Army may have to come and cap them,” McCumber said. “Why invest $8,000 to $15,000 if you know the Army is going to build a system?”
Sitton said the review is under way.
“When you are talking about a system that can cost upwards of $20 million, it gets complicated," Sitton said.