SAUK COUNTY (WKOW) -- For 70 years, the Badger Army Ammunition Plant has been a landmark in Sauk County. As the Army slowly moves out, all that will be left is the memory of that historic powder plant, including all the controversy over water contamination.
Badger Ammo was the area's biggest employer, putting more than 60,000 people to work creating ammunition over the years. And, the plant had the biggest environmental impact in the area.
It was contamination that would become controversy for decades. Coalitions of residents formed, fighting for clean water. So for more than 20 years, the Army has been treating that water in the area around Badger, at a $200 million price tag.
The agency is preparing the site for its new owners, still clearing up soil contamination from years of burning propellants and tearing down what was once a small city.
"You start with the infrastructure: the telephone poles and the wires and you take the buildings down, and you make sure you don't leave anything behind that's going to cause problems," says Joan Kenney, an Army representative at Badger.
The Army has torn down nearly 1,400 buildings-- just 30 remain on the site.
"The Army cleans up the property parcel by parcel and then the regulatory part of our agency [the DNR] reviews the documents to make sure that they've met the standard," says Mark Aquino, director of the South Central region of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Aquino says those state and federal standards mean the land will be safe for future use. The DNR has plans to turn more than 4,000 acres of the site into a state recreation area. They're seeking public input to determine what uses people would like to have there. The agency also plans to restore the land back to its natural habitat.
The Army plans to phase out the groundwater treatment system, saying it's run its course, but with concerns over drinking water safety, they've proposed to pay for a municipal water system that would cover 270 homes in Merrimac, Sumpter and Prairie du Sac: the water areas hit with contamination plumes.
The plan is a problem for many people, including Roger Spear. Spear grew up on a farm in Merrimac-- land that his grandfather purchased from the Army back in 1946. His immediate family has lived on that property ever since.
Spear says forcing farmers to use municipal water would be too expensive, especially since the Spear's well water has been deemed safe for years. He questions what would happen if new contamination shows up.
"The burning site and the burial sites are actually just in Badger, not so far off of our property," says Spear. "It was a really pristine and beautiful area before the Army came and put the plant in, and it should be restored to that same type of environment."
Kenney says the municipal water system would be the most cost efficient and effective plan to eliminate concerns over drinking water safety. None of the municipalities have made any agreements on the plan.
The Army still plans to be off the property completely within the next few years. All that will be left of the powder plant that fueled three major wars is a memory and a museum.
14 years ago, Verlyn Mueller set out to memorialize the site's storied history by creating the Badger History Group-- a museum dedicated to the past.
"The last 14 years have been a little depressing at times, but I'm at the point where I'm becoming a little numb to it," says Mueller. "You recognize that that era is gone, and I focus on preserving the history of the powder plant, and that's the important part."
The museum will be the only part of Badger left on the property once the Army is gone.
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