Journal Club Review – Environmental concerns for local housing: A rock and a hard place

Journal Club Review – Environmental concerns for local housing: A rock and a hard place

October’s journal club was led by Kevin Lauterjung (Graduate Student in Biophysics). Journal club review was written by Amanda Hurley (Postdoc in Jo Handelsman’s Lab).

This October, CaSP’s journal club turned an eye towards local issues. Science communication played a central role in a recent debate about low-income housing placement in Dane County. As uncomfortable as it is to say, as a scientist, the facts do not lead to a single, righteous answer.

The problem began with a commercial smelting operation, called Madison Kipp Corporation (MKC), that was generating hazardous waste 60 years before society became acutely aware of, and demanded protection from, environmental contamination. This environmental awakening lead to the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. As Madison grew, a residential area blossomed around MKC, and residents began a loud and justified campaign against soil and airborne contamination from various, dangerous chlorinated compounds: specifically, perchloroethylene (PCE) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). These ominous acronyms can lead to rashes, headaches, neurotoxicity, and cancer. Additionally, air pollution from small particulate matter inspired many protests from local community organizations, eventually leading to the installment of taller smokestacks to better disperse the pollution.

A simplistic view would label MKC as a villain and the community advocates as holding moral high-ground. However, MKC has taken multiple steps to comply with new regulations from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). By contrast, some contamination accusations are for notably safe, albeit scary-looking, compounds like bright magenta potassium permanganate that is actually used to neutralize PCEs. Taken together, the tension between MKC and the local residents extends beyond economics and public health.

Meanwhile, the city of Madison grapples with another crisis: the lack of affordable housing. In 2014, Mayor Soglin proposed an Affordable Housing Fund to attract developers to building cheaper housing in exchange for tax credits. Stone House Development, Inc. applied for these tax credits in 2016 to build an 80-unit apartment building of which 68 would be low-income housing.  The only problem is that the location is 134 Fair Oaks Ave, a mere 266 feet away from MKC. The project was initially approved by the Madison City Council. However, a team of five Alders (folks on the council) blocked the funding citing health concerns. All of these forces met on the council floor, almost one year ago in October 2017, to persuade the council to either reinvest or cancel the funding for Stone House.

First discussed at the meeting were some public health concerns. The DNR considers MKC to be within current air regulations based on air quality monitoring at East High School (~1 mile away). There is soil contamination, but the project plan included soil remediation, which makes the community safer. Alder Kimble requested the ideal solution: equipment to monitor air quality directly at the Fair Oaks site. A public health official, however, deferred due to complexity and time (it would take at least a year to capture all the seasonal variables). Furthermore, the DNR does not have the resources for unlimited field tests and instead relies on mathematical modeling.

Somewhat surprisingly, Alder Rummel, who represented the district in question, supported  funding Stone House on the grounds that providing low income housing outweighed the environmental concerns. She also broached an interesting science communication issue. Beginning with, “I’m not a scientist,” she questioned which study and which data should be believed, and expressed frustration at the repetitive nature of environmental concerns in the Atwood area.

The core ethical issue is that disadvantaged people do not often have the luxury to make easy decisions. Instead of simply making a fact-based decision on whether the environmental issues are of personal concern, the potential tenants of 134 Fair Oaks must also weigh in homelessness.  Which is worse? Being homeless now or sick in twenty years? What would you pick? This is a common topic in ethical human research as well. For example, are participants experiencing “undue influence,” an incentive that convinces a person to make decisions they normally would not make?

Unfortunately, since field data are not perfectly acquired, there are holes in the foundation on which we want to make conclusions. Additionally, funding is rapidly dissipating for the DNR. One question unsettling  my mind, further muddling chances for a clear answer is if MKC is so dangerous, why is the surrounding area zoned residential? One solution could have been to ask Stone House to use a small percentage of their tax credits to purchase air quality testing equipment, which would set an amazing precedent for renter protection, and put the safety issue to rest. Maybe next time…Stone House was approved for over $10 million dollars in tax credits from state and local governments.