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Thomas Street plan edges forward despite strong opposition

in Investigations

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that two council members represent portions of Thomas Street that would be under construction. Both Sherry Abitz and Dave Nutting represent voters in that area. The original story did not name Dave Nutting.

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — After nearly an hour of fierce debate, city leaders on Tuesday voted to move forward with a 30 percent design plan for a controversial Thomas Street reconstruction plan.

The proposed reconstruction is the second phase of a project already underway and would stretch from Fourth Avenue to the Wisconsin River.

At Tuesday’s meeting neighborhood resident Tom Killian presented a petition signed by more than 200 people who oppose the project and are asking for more thorough environmental testing and studies. But those voices fell on deaf ears with council members Sherry Abitz and David Nutting, who each represent portions of the Thomas Street district. Both voted in favor of moving forward with the design plan.

Council members Tom Neal, Becky McElhaney, Dennis Smith and Gary Gisselman all spoke against the project, advocating for neighborhood residents and echoing their environmental concerns. Questions have swirled about the potential toxicity of the soil and the danger to the area’s groundwater if the soil is disturbed.

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.

McElhaney said she voted against the plan because moving forward with a design does not address potential environmental concerns and does not specifically call for additional testing.

Wausau’s public works director, Eric Lindman, insists that the Department of Natural Resources has signed off on the project, despite court documents that show groundwater levels at or above the depth where crews would be digging to replace sewer lines.

Gisselman, pointing to a 2012 environmental impact report by Stantec that concluded elevated dioxin levels existed in the area, said there is clearly some contamination in the neighborhood that has affected residents.

“We really don’t have a clear idea of what kind of contamination there is,” Gisselman said.

Neal called for an environmental study that would identify potential issues within the entire Thomas Street route, while seeking an option that would replace the road in its current footprint.

Council President Lisa Rasmussen urged the council to move forward with the plan, noting that the design is a way to identify potential problems and solve them before any real estate acquisitions would occur. The project is expected to include heavy property acquisition on the north side of the road.

The council voted 6-4 to move forward with a design plan, which is expected to be completed later this year. Council members Rasmussen, Joe Gehin, Karen Kellbach, Romey Wagner, Sherry Abitz, and Dave Nutting voted to approve the proposal. Smith, McElhaney, Neal and Smith voted against. Council member Pat Peckham, who represents District 1, was not at the meeting.

In an Aug. 8 letter to members of the city council (see below), 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.”
Aug ltr city council

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