Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources opened the gates to the Badger Army Ammunition Plant site Saturday, giving people a chance to tour the property.
In total, about 1,200 cars circled the DNR’s 3,800 acres of the property. One of those vehicles belonged to Lowell Grass, a man all too familiar to the land.
"I've pretty much been here through the whole thing," Grass said.
Grass grew up close to the property, long before it was developed, and says he played in the prairies as a kid. He then delivered papers to the construction site before going overseas for the Korean War. Upon his return, Grass worked at the ammunition plant in a number of different capacities. Once it was decided to tear down the factories, he even came back to clean up and haul hazardous materials off the site.
Grass got a bird's eye view from the bluffs as part of the self-guided tour. Looking out on the mostly empty land, scattered with ruins of the old plant, Grass says the change is for the better.
"It's certainly quite different, and I'm kind of glad to see it go back to prairie land and the way it was in the early days," Grass said.
While the grounds look different on the surface, Laura Olah is still concerned about what lies beneath the prairie grass.
Olah leads the Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB), a group that has fought for about 20 years to keep contaminants at the plant's property from seeping into the groundwater. She says any clean up effort thus far hasn’t been enough.
"There were clean up activities," Olah said, "but the level of clean up that's accomplished right now does not support future use in most of those areas."
Now, Olah says the main goal of her organization is to make sure explosives or chemicals in the soil and water aren’t limiting what the land can be used for in the future. Olah says contamination informing or dictating land use is unacceptable in her eyes, and she wants to see the problem dealt with from the sources of pollution and not fished out further down the line.
"We're trying to encourage clean up at the source areas in order to prevent the contaminants from moving to the groundwater in the first place," Olah added.
Olah says while there is no immediate, serious risk to people’s drinking water, there could be in the years to come. She adds that a lot of the clean up has been focused on human health and not the wildlife, and she would like to see more emphasis on the environment and animal life.
"All of the major sites, in terms of geographic area and effect on the community, have been left until the end," Olah said.
Back at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, DNR ecologist Mike Moore takes visitor questions. He assures them that groundwater is an issue, but that it won’t affect much of what happened on the ground’s surface. He admits, however, that there are some restrictions with the current conditions of dirt in some spots.
"We have to be careful, you know, about what uses are done where. In some areas we don't want to disturb the soil or we can't disturb the soil or we can't disturb the soil very far down," Moore said. "But it's just not really a place to be afraid of."
The DNR is working on a master plan for future land uses, but there’s already a plan called "Badger Reuse" that deals with clean up missions and policies. Moore says it’s difficult to balance the historical significance of the land, environmental factors, concerns from the public, and recreational elements. On top of that, Moore says funds are limited.
"There's a limited amount of resources, and we need to be wise about what we spend our money on and what's important in the long run," Moore added.
While some pieces of the past may be gone, Grass says the changes are all for the better.
"It's good that the plant is gone," Grass said.
Click here for more information on the master plan for the ammunition plant site.