By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — As city leaders prepare to vote on a 30 percent design for a second phase of the Thomas Street road construction project, hundreds of residents have signed a petition that opposes the plan, and an environmental advocacy group is urging caution in moving forward.
Members of the Wausau City Council are expected to vote on the plan tonight, edging the project forward. But residents in the River Street neighborhood remain overwhelmingly opposed to the plan and are asking the city to maintain Thomas Street from 4th Avenue to the Wisconsin River in its current footprint.
The petition also asks that the city undertake more thorough environmental testing and studies beforehand, as questions remain about the presence of harmful toxins in the soil in and around the neighborhood.
The project would likely involve purchasing dozens of properties along Thomas Street to make way for a new road that would be safer for drivers and pedestrians, according to city officials. The storm sanitary sewer pipes would also be replaced as part of the project, which would require digging up to 10 feet below the surface.
Residents say the digging could pose serious environmental hazards by disturbing ground contaminated after 40 years of chemical spills at a nearby manufacturing plant, leading to potential groundwater contamination.
In an Aug. 8 letter to members of the city council, Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, warns that the project would cause “massive disruption of soil near an area already known to contain toxic pollutants that could intrude into places people live, work and recreate.”
“To proceed with the project with awareness of the contamination, and without safeguards designed to contain toxic pollutants, puts the people living in the area at a great risk of harm even though the City of Wausau has knowledge of the existence of the pollutants,” the letter states. “In light of known serious health impacts in the area and increasing reports of residents already suffering serious illness likely associated with legacy pollution, creating more risk through massive disturbance of potentially contaminated soils would be a failure of the City’s duty to protect public health and welfare of all citizens.”
Much of the area has had a history of environmental contamination traced back to the widespread use of a chemical called Penta at the former Crestline site, which runs along Thomas Street. Now classified by the World Health Organization as a known carcinogen, Penta was used in manufacturing at the site from 1946 to 1986. 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.
At a July meeting of the Capital Improvement and Street Maintenance Committee, Council President Lisa Rasmussen said the road reconstruction project would not pose a public health hazard because the groundwater is 20 feet below the surface. But those claims are directly refuted by court documents that show the groundwater could lie between 7 and 10 feet in some areas within the River Street neighborhood.
Some residents say they are frustrated that their voices aren’t being heard.
“They’re not listening,” said Lou Larson, who bought a home on Thomas Street earlier this year. “We’re worried they’re digging up a known chemical dump without knowing it’s safe.”
More than 200 residents have signed the petition in the past six days.
In her letter, Wright stated that the Wausau Metropolitan Planning Organization specifically identified the area of proposed project activities to meet the demographic parameters of an “environmental justice” community. An important element of working in an environmental justice community is ensuring public meetings, information and decision-making processes are accessible to all those potentially impacted, the letter states.
“The City of Wausau has adequate information about the toxic pollutants in the nearby soil that are putting the people living near the Phase II area of the Thomas Street project at risk of serious illness,” Wright wrote.
The letter also states:
“The City must do the environmental testing and assessments for soil and water contamination in addition to investigating whether any of the legacy pollutants are entering area homes through vapor intrusion before approving Phase II of the Thomas Street Project. Most of the contacts we’ve received from Wausau citizens have been about public health concerns, but a number of individuals have expressed concern for the potential of toxic pollutants making their way to the Wisconsin River. The red flags that indicate the need for further exploration when doing a credible environmental assessment are waving furiously and the City of Wausau should act accordingly.
Public health should not be put at risk but neither should taxpayers have the risk of picking up the tab for significant financial liability that could be generated from the City of Wausau proceeding with a project in areas with known toxic pollutants and a history of serious illness in area residents without exercising due diligence through an appropriate environmental assessment and testing.”