CSWAB began as a “kitchen table” organization when rural neighbors discovered their drinking water wells were polluted with high levels of carcinogenic solvents. Carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene, and chloroform were detected in the water supplies of three farm families at levels 15 times the safe standard. Toxins resulting from 50 years of weapons manufacturing from the nearby Badger Army Ammunition Plant had moved undetected through the groundwater, poisoning drinking water wells more than a mile away.
In a heroic David vs. Goliath struggle, rural residents took on the US Army and an international chemical company. They said the base shouldn’t be allowed to operate because it was unable to do business without polluting the water, land, and air. Multi-ton chemical spills continued to plague the facility even though active production had ceased decades earlier. Community members decided cleaning up the plant was not enough, they decided the best solution would be to get the facility closed altogether and converted to peaceful purposes. “Restore the prairie, not the ammo plant” became their slogan and their goal.
Throughout the 90’s CSWAB held public hearings, did research, mounted publicity campaigns, and organized citizens throughout the state. Along the way, the group blocked dozens of initiatives that threatened public health and the environment including hazardous waste incineration and a federal program to reindustrialize idle ammunition plants.
In 1997, the hard-won news finally came. Badger Army Ammunition Plant would be closing. The news came on the heels of a new partnership that would set the course for the future. Dr. Rob Horwich, a biologist with Community Conservation, proposed a vision for the future – a future that would be built by community members. But could a handful of community members really make a difference?
Horwich worked with community members and a vision for the future use of Badger was put to paper. The proposal would promote an economy built on the conservation, educational, and eco-tourism opportunities on the Badger lands. In the ensuing months, CSWAB helped organize a statewide coalition of community members and conservation professionals. Support was growing.
Meanwhile, two federal agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of the Interior on behalf of the Ho-Chunk Nation, expressed interest in gaining ownership of the Badger property. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency responsible for the final disposition of the Badger lands, indicated their intent to market significant portions of the remaining lands for industrial operations.
In 1999, the Sauk County Board of Supervisors asked the GSA to delay any final decisions for one year; the agency agreed. The following month, the County appointed a 21-person reuse committee that included delegates of state, local, federal, and tribal governments, and representatives of historic, cultural, conservation, and environmental interests, including CSWAB.
An intergovernmental group followed, and today a conceptual land use plan divides the entire Badger property between the Ho-Chunk Nation, Dairy Forage Research Center, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – ensuring no lands are available for industrial development. Instead, proposed land use will be limited to conservation, sustainable agriculture, recreation, and education.
Throughout this process, CSWAB has been a powerful and outspoken advocate for environmental justice in its community. The group’s work to mobilize and empower community and tribal members in the many decision-making processes relevant to Badger’s future has established a strong foundation for the future.
For 15 years, dedicated community members have kept up the fight by themselves, with little financial backing, mostly run by volunteers, and against all odds. Many challenges still lie ahead — groundwater contamination threatens drinking water supplies, mercury discharges have polluted nearby lakes and streams, and proposed open burning of hundreds of PCB-contaminated buildings threatens the health of the community, especially infants and children who are most vulnerable to these pollutants.
In the coming months and years CSWAB will continue to serve as a powerful and steady voice for reducing risks to human health and natural systems. We will continue to strengthen community-based work for environmental justice and create opportunities for the public to have a voice in the debate around the protection of human health and the environment – a vision that began at a kitchen table in rural Wisconsin.