A Frank Look at the Air, Land and Water in the Former Machine Shop of the World

The ghosts of industry continue to haunt Milwaukee’s air, land and water.

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By the late 19th century, Milwaukee’s natural environment was in dismal shape. Because early sewers emptied into the Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic rivers, those waterways had become choked with “liquid filth,” according to the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. Thanks to local tanneries and stockyards, the once-idyllic Menomonee River oozed with “blood, viscera and manure” that formed a “stinking, sluggish mass,” and early smokestacks cast a dark cloud of coal smoke over industrial areas like the Menomonee Valley.

Today, the rivers are far cleaner, and otters have returned to the lower Milwaukee River, traveling as far south as the Third Ward in 2019. Upstream, fly fishermen wade in to cast for brown trout, and the city has cleaned former brownfields like the Menomonee Valley and Century City, which lies along the old 30th Street industrial corridor, to either reopen them for development or return them to nature. While many major environmental challenges lie behind Milwaukee, there are many still left to confront.

So-called “legacy” pollutants, like the old industrial lubricant PCB, still linger in the riverbed sediment of many local waterways and have been the target of scattershot cleanups funded by the EPA, but a once-in-a-generation dredging project is drawing closer after Gov. Tony Evers signed the state budget in July. The project includes restoration of natural banks and wetlands and other rehabilitation efforts, and the overall tab could reach more than $200 million in local and mostly federal funds.

 

 

Another pollutant found in local waterways, phosphorus, kills by giving wildlife “too much food,” says Bolger Breceda, causing deadly algae blooms in Lake Michigan and elsewhere. In rural settings, storm water runoff carries animal waste and excess farm fertilizer into streams and rivers; in cities, it collects pet dung, plant fertilizer and nasty chemicals from impervious surfaces like parking lots.

In 2010, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to regulate phosphorus runoff from farms and effluence wastewater treatment plants, reducing the problem. Gov. Scott Walker relaxed the regulations after taking office in 2011, but Gov. Tony Evers has begun the process of tightening them back up again.

And a new easy-to-use phosphorus filter developed by Marcia Silva, director of UWM’s Water Technology Accelerator, can be attached directly to the runoff systems of farms. Her “filtration box,” already licensed to a private company, removes about 90% of phosphorus in lab testing and at least 60% in field testing, which has continued this summer at a farm in northeast Wisconsin using an updated design.

While phosphorus kills with an overabundance of nutrients, chloride from ice-busting road salt finds its way into local waterways and saps salt-sensitive life there, even into warmer months. The city of Milwaukee has taken to using salt brine, a more efficient mixture of salt and water, because simply ending salt application altogether would put drivers and pedestrians at risk. “That’s always the rub with road salt,” Bolger Breceda says.

Thanks in part to the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the state-level regulations that followed, Milwaukee’s air is a lot cleaner than it was in those dusky, coal-burning days 100 years ago. But air pollution continues in a subtler form that is easy to overlook if you don’t have asthma or belong to another at-risk group, such as the elderly. The American Lung Association routinely gives Milwaukee an “F” for elevated ozone pollution, which comes from vehicle exhaust, power plants and other industrial sources. Ground-level ozone can make breathing painful and difficult for some people.

Elizabeth Ward, director of the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club, points to We Energies’ coal-burning Oak Creek Power Plant, which contributes to a band of poor air quality that begins in Chicago and extends all the way to Door County, with large amounts of ozone pollution being produced in both Wisconsin and Illinois cities, the EPA estimates.

Other problems remain. Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center, points to how the region’s use of plastics has increased since he moved here in the 1990s, and the city remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels for transportation.

Still, “There’s been a big transformation” in local culture, he says. “When I arrived, sustainability was a word you didn’t hear very much, and green was a color. Now, it’s a movement.”


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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.