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

13 replies on “Thomas Street plan edges forward despite strong opposition”

  1. I am not at all surprised by the vote to proceed. It’s my opinion that decisions made are not heavily based on cost or wisdom.

  2. But we, the citizens of this city, end up paying for these huge mistakes in our high tax dollars! Wake up Wausau!!!

  3. So, I wonder if there will be an equal outcry about Sherry Abitz NOT LISTENING to her constituents, as there was about Councilmen and the chicken issue. Tom Killian delivered 200 signatures, and she did not speak, and voted for the project.

    1. Sure there should be outcry. However, I have to wonder if there’s really ANY other solution to this “contamination” issue other than to move everyone out of the neighborhood and fence it off. I’m being serious. If the level of dioxins are TWENTY-FIVE times the recommended EPA level, how exactly is it safe for anyone to be living in that area NOW? I’m certainly no scientist, but evidently, this level of dioxins hasn’t kept people from continuously living in this neighborhood, has it? Either the EPA is making a mountain out of a mole hill and feeding the hysteria of people who think the EPA is God, or the city of Wausau is being seriously negligent about the well being of their citizens. Honestly, I think it’s a little bit of both.
      Maybe all of the chicken coops in Wausau should be in that neighborhood and we’ll see what kind of deformed eggs the hens lay? 😉

  4. The willingness of some on Council to ignore the potential environmental aspects of this matter is alarming.

    The willingness to ignore the wishes of constituents is stunning.

  5. Max Progress, well said. One can only wonder how these same alderpersons keep getting reelected year after year. Their constituents are either to uninformed or to stupid to see what the people they elected are doing to them.

  6. Following up on what Stan wrote, “One can only wonder how these same alderpersons keep getting reelected year after year. Their constituents are either to uninformed or to stupid to see what the people they elected are doing to them.”
    .
    Local media, in the past, usually has given scant coverage to local politicians and their actions, so constituents are often uninformed unless they actually attend the meetings. That’s just one of the things I find refreshing about Wausau Pilot and Review, btw – coverage. It would be interesting to read what the council members would say about the reasoning behind their votes if the were asked by the media. I’d also be curious to read if any of them refused to talk about their vote with the Fourth Estate.

    1. On a side note, Mayor Robert Mielke did not respond to multiple requests today questioning whether he would veto the plan.

    2. All city council meetings and many committee meeting are recorded and available for viewing on the city’s website. Their is no excuse for the citizens not knowing what is going on, Unless they are to lazy to find out. However, I agree that the Wausa Pilot and Review is the only local media thst gives a damm about local politics.

      1. Stan, I’ll partially agree with you. Yes, council and committee mtgs are able to be seen on the city website, but I’ll be honest with you. Until right now, when you stated that, I had NO idea they could be viewed. Having said that, I don’t really think that means citizens have “no excuse” not knowing what’s going on. I personally don’t think I should have to either attend or watch council or committee mtgs online in order to keep these local community reps in line! It’s not like they’re elementary school kids who need supervision at recess…….well, bad analogy. They most certainly are.
        I also probably keep up with local goings-on more than the average person and I gotta tell you that come voting time, I really know NOTHING about these people who run for city council. They’re evidently not required to declare a party affiliation and by that alone, it would tell me a lot. Same with mayor. Why is it that every state and federal political position makes candidates declare party affiliation, but not local? Unfortunately, we only speculate and then later on get somewhat of an idea about it because of how they vote in council and the policies they back or oppose. I think that should change and the sooner, the better.
        I’ll totally agree with you that Shereen deserves a TON of credit for bringing these issues to light. The majority of other “news” outlets in town as usual, completely miss the boat.

  7. Is this not an opportunity to excavate and dispose/treat the historical contamination? Especially if this is an area where people live, work and recreate, I’d suppose it would be better if we were to do something about it now and make it better for all than have it sit and wait for emergencies dealing with aging utilities.

  8. Call 1911
    I very seldom disagree with the content of your posts as they seem very well thought out and well presented. However on this point I respectfully disagree with your position.

    Only by being aware how council members are conducting the city’s business, and determining if you agree with their actions, can you make a informed decision to support or not support that councilperson should they run for reelection. If you just keep voting for the same council person, even though you feel they are not acting in your best interests, you are more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.

    Each election cycle the voters have an opportunity to make a constructive change, if they feel it necessary to do so. But time and time again we see many of the big spenders on the council get reelected, sometimes without anyone running against them. If that is the is not the perfect example of insanity I do not know what is.

    As far as a council member’s political affiliation, all you have to do is ask them. If the refuse to identify with one of the two major political parties, chances they are a democrat.

    1. Stop it, Stan. People are gonna suggest we get a room… 😉
      Ok, stupidity aside….. I actually don’t see where we disagree. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. I do NOT want (myself or anyone else) to keep voting for the same people that already occupy or run unopposed. Every damn time I go to vote in a local election, I mutter to myself (ok, maybe a few people can hear me) “who in the hell are these people and I know NOTHING about them”. Again, they’re not required to declare party affiliation and like their big BFF’s who occupy seats in state and federal positions, they ALL say the “right things” in interviews, etc., but when they get elected, they all seem to drink from the same kool-aid pitcher. You made an excellent point as to how time and time again we see the people who love to spend other people’s money run unopposed. Unfortunately, you, I and everyone else are pretty much helpless in combating that.
      I can’t think of ONE current city council member who has declared a party affiliation (please share if you know of any). However, I think I have a pretty fool-proof solution. When it gets close to election time, pick up that local fish wrapper called city pages and look for who they endorse, or do favorable stories on. Whoever that is, vote for the OTHER person. Sadly, I can’t come up with anything better.

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