WAUSAU — As city officials on Monday prepare for a public information meeting to present two options for completing the Thomas Street road project, past controversies surrounding the plan are resurfacing in social media and around the internet.
The meeting is slated for 5 p.m. tonight at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau. Two potential plans will be presented to complete the project on a stretch of Thomas Street from 4th Avenue to the river. The first phase of the project, from 4th Avenue west to 17th Avenue, is now underway. Both projects are expected to include heavy property acquisition on the north side of the road.
Some residents are voicing surprise that a four-lane option is still in the mix, because the expansion would end at the two-lane Thomas Street Bridge. Eric Lindman, the city’s public works director, said the Department of Transportation has no plans to expand the bridge, which was redecked in 2006 has a total expected life of more than 40 years.
The entire project has been mired in controversy for years. In 2012, the city lost millions in state and federal funding for the project because the city failed to appraise 10 homes before buying them. As a result, Wausau was banned from receiving any federal funds for the project and was placed on a watch list until 2015.
In addition, an opinion from Graef Consulting of Milwaukee states that four lanes on Thomas Street are unnecessary from a traffic or road-improvement perspective.
Other groups and individuals have raised environmental concerns about the project. A July 2014 letter to city officials and council members from Midwest Environmental Advocates outlining key concerns about the plan. (See the full letter below.)
“A big red flag for many citizens is the failure to test soil in places people live, work and recreate,” wrote Kimberlee Wright, executive director of the organization. “How can a massive construction project of the scope proposed for Thomas Street be budgeted for if there is no information about the potential contamination in the soil to be excavated, piled, regraded and hauled away?”
Wright’s letter prompted an angry response from council member Sherry Abitz, who represents residents in that district. “What is this?” Abitz wrote. “You have no idea what is going on here. You are concerned with pollution, but if the residents are concerned with their health why are they so interested in staying and not moving when they have other residents that have been diagnosed with cancer?” (See the full email embedded below.)
An environmental impact report released in July 2012 by Stantec as part of a 2008 lawsuit concluded elevated dioxin levels existed in the area. The lawsuit was filed by dozens of residents against Crestline/Wauleco and other defendants, alleging at least 30 incidences of cancer in the area related to contamination issues. That case was settled in December 2012, court records show.
“Our opinion is further substantiated by the documented presence of dioxin contamination in the residential neighborhood east of the former SNE Facility; a condition that is attributed to airborne and storm water transport of contaminated site soils and dusts,” the court documents read.
At a January 2016 meeting of the Capital Improvements committee, then-city council president Rob Mielke is heard asking Lindman about the environmental impact of the project. Lindman told Mielke, who has since been elected mayor, that those tests were not necessary because there is no federal funding involved. (See audio below.)
But Lindman on Friday told Wausau Pilot & Review that additional environmental testing “will be revisited depending on the layout of the road.”
Lindman further clarified his position on Tuesday by saying that the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, is a type of report considered by the federal government related to projects when federal funding is involved.
“I stated in the audio that the EIS was no longer required as there was no longer federal funding involved,”Lindman wrote, in a statement to Wausau Pilot & Review. “Any testing is a separate issue and not related to the EIS. Any additional testing will be determined once we know what land disturbance will be required based on the approved layout of the project. I just want this to be accurate.”
Meanwhile, a website has cropped up posting documents and audio files related to the project. Thomasst.org has attracted significant attention on social media and has sparked critical discussion about the proposal. The site bills itself as a “resource for Wausau residents created by Wausau residents.”
Tonight’s meeting will allow for public comment.Response-to-Law-Center
At a January 2016 meeting of the Capital Improvements committee, then-city council president Rob Mielke is heard asking Lindman about the environmental impact of the project.