By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — Members of the city’s Capital Improvements and Street Maintenance Committee on Wednesday voted to move forward with partial design plans for a controversial Thomas Street reconstruction project, despite strong opposition from residents.
Mayor Rob Mielke urged the committee to table the matter for at least a month to explore concerns over environmental impacts the project could have. Much of the controversy surrounding the project is based on concern over existing soil contamination within the project area.
“It scares the hell out of me,” Mielke said. “It feels like we’re moving too fast, and I don’t know what the hurry is.”
The proposed reconstruction is the second phase of a project already underway and would stretch from Fourth Avenue to the Wisconsin River. Much of that area, known as the River Street neighborhood, has had a history of environmental contamination traced back to the widespread use of a chemical called Penta. Now classified by the World Health Organization as a known carcinogen, Penta was used in manufacturing at the former Crestline site. The current owner, Wauleco, was sued in 2008 by 144 people who claimed toxicity in the soil and groundwater caused cancer and other health problems.
The lawsuit alleged that Penta was routinely spilled and discharged into the environment over a 40-year-period. The Penta allegedly migrated into the River Street neighborhood, spreading dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals throughout the area. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit in 2006 arranged for collection and analysis of surface soil and indoor dust samples throughout the River street neighborhood, which revealed the continued presence of dioxins more than 25 times the EPA recommended level, according to court documents.
Council President Lisa Rasmussen dismissed the concern over potential groundwater contamination as baseless misinformation.
“We know for a fact about the existence of Penta, the groundwater is over 20 feet below the surface in that area,” Rasmussen said. “In a construction project you dig down 8 to 10 feet.”
But a 1998 environmental site assessment performed at the site of the Morley-Murphy Warehouse seems to refute that number. The assessment, embedded below, showed the groundwater level just south of Thomas Street at about 10 feet below land surface.
Groundwater levels fluctuate seasonally and from year to year in response to changes in recharge from precipitation and surface-water bodies, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. (See: General Facts and Concepts About Groundwater)
Sherry Abitz, the council member who represents residents in the project area, said reconstructing the road is necessary in part to mitigate concerns over lead service lines, which could also be an environmental
But some residents, including Judith Miller, say they are equally troubled by potential Penta contamination and feel their concerns are not being addressed. More than half of the residents surveyed oppose any reconstruction in that area, according to city documents.
“Why would you be concerned about lead but not Penta?” Miller asked. “I am at a loss to explain why the city would fail to protect its residents.”
Jay Kronenwetter urged the committee to take the mayor’s suggestion and take seriously the concerns over the potential toxicity of the soil.
“Since the 1980s, everyone except members of government have understood just how dangerous this is,” Kronenwetter said. “Before you do anything, before you buy properties, make sure the first step is finding out if you’re buying a toxic waste site.”
Rasmussen said reconstructing Thomas Street is a matter of public safety and should move forward.
“No one is going to ignore the environmental impact,” Rasmussen said at the meeting. “The longer we wait, the longer we sit on the launch pad.”
The full council is expected to vote on the matter in August. If approved, engineers will have the green light to design 30 percent of the project, mapping out which properties will be impacted before property acquisition and construction begins.