By Shereen Siewert
After strong neighborhood opposition coupled with a series of stories by Wausau Pilot and Review detailing potential environmental hazards along Thomas Street, the city will now commission testing for chemical compounds beneath the roadway, city leaders confirmed Thursday.
Despite a petition with more than 200 signatures and pleas from residents, members of the council voted narrowly in July to move forward with a 30 percent design plan for the project, which calls for massive reconstruction along Thomas Street from Fourth Avenue to the Wisconsin River. Phase one of the project, from 17th Avenue to Fourth Avenue, is now underway, and the design plan is still moving forward even as testing is being performed.
Public Works Director Eric Lindman, in an email to Wausau Pilot and Review, said soil borings and samples are being performed later this week, at Mayor Rob Mielke’s request.
“This final decision was made by the mayor as he felt the citizens’ concerns needed to be addressed,” Lindman wrote. “The mayor wants to make sure we have representative sampling of areas related to citizens’ concerns and he felt the more information we have the more informed decisions we can make moving forward.”
The proposed reconstruction plan has been largely opposed by residents in the River Street district, many of whom are concerned about potential health risks if the project moves forward. To replace the road, crews would be required to dig between 8 and 10 feet below the surface, disturbing ground that has been contaminated through decades of chemical spills at a nearby manufacturing plant. Questions have also been posed about groundwater safety amid conflicting reports of groundwater levels in the project zone.
Soil samples from 12 borings will be collected and sampled for contamination, Lindman wrote. If groundwater is encountered during the boring process, a sample will be taken and analyzed as well.
“We will be boring to a depth of 12 feet below ground surface as this is what our anticipated construction depth limit will be for the project,”Lindman said.
The soil borings are scheduled to begin on Friday and should take between four and five hours, with more analysis than previous samples required by the Department of Natural Resources.
Soils will be tested for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s), Pentacholrophenol (PCP) and “daughter products” and dioxins, Lindman said. The environmental consulting firm AECOM will coordinate the services and all testing will be completed by a Wisconsin DNR certified laboratory.
Neighborhood resident Tom Killian, who turned the petition in to council members in July, said he was initially relieved when he heard the city was planning to pursue soil testing.
“But that relief turned to concern when I learned of how this was going to be coordinated and that the analysis of the soil samples for dioxins and furans was going to begin at one to two feet,” Killian said. “Residents, on multiple occasions for roughly three years, have provided documentation to the city indicating dioxins were found in the surface soils of certain neighborhood sites. It is my opinion that the topsoil should be analyzed — and not only for dioxins and furans — but for a comprehensive set of the contaminants that have been documented in the neighborhood’s past and present.”
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.
Concerns about soil contamination in the area can be traced back nearly 80 years, to a July 22, 1937 story in the Wausau Pilot, one of the city’s first newspapers. At that time, homeowners in the River Street area were already complaining to city leaders that chemical-laden dust from what was then the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company was damaging homes and harming the health of their children, according to the newspaper story.
Those concerns were echoed for decades, prompting significant debate and at least one lawsuit.
In May 2008, 144 residents filed suit against Wauleco Inc. alleging that dioxins in the soil damaged their health or their property. Wauleco is the current owner of the property that once housed Crestline, which borders the edge of the proposed project area.
According to the lawsuit, from about 1946 to 1986, manufacturing operations at the site included treatment of wood products with a preservative called Penta, a chemical that is capable of causing both cancerous and non-cancerous diseases when ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, according to the World Health Organization.
The lawsuit alleged that Penta was routinely spilled and discharged into the environment over a 40-year-period. During that time, the Penta migrated into the River Street neighborhood, spreading dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals throughout the area, according to the lawsuit.
One group of plaintiffs alleged their exposure to Penta had caused them to develop various health problems, including Hodgin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancers of the breast, liver, brain, stomach and thyroid, diabetes, thyroid disease and neurological problems, according to court documents.
All that remains at the Crestline site today is one building and a field containing several small wells. Those wells were used by the DNR to extract Penta from the ground. Additional groundwater monitoring wells are scattered throughout the neighborhood, along the streets, in Riverside Park, and in the yards of homeowners.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit in 2006 arranged for collection and analysis of surface soil and indoor dust samples throughout the River street neighborhood. Those sample results revealed the continued presence of dioxins more than 25 times the EPA recommended level, according to court documents.
The case has since been settled.
Though the Department of Natural Resources has removed nearly 150,000 gallons of Penta from the ground since 1990, removal processes ceased in March 2011 after the agency declared the area safe.
But some residents aren’t convinced.
“As you know, this disturbance of the soil can release airborne dioxides that we can inhale, ingest and seep into our river and park systems, not excluding our water treatment plant,” wrote Carolyn LaPorte, in a June 26 email to Lindman.
Another resident, Don Lewandowski, wrote, “I don’t think we should be demolishing more homes, displacing long-time residents from their homes, removing properties from the tax roll and disturbing contaminated soil, putting public health at risk in exchange for a bike lane and a turn lane.”
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.”
Killian said he would have preferred more discussion before the city moved forward.
“Because it is such a significant concern for the community, I wish this could have been discussed and dealt with in a public forum such as a council or committee meeting, so that residents and council members could have asked questions, and expressed their input and concerns about this testing plan,” Killian said.
Test results are expected in two to four weeks, Lindman said. The samples and analysis will cost a total of $24,000. If any soil contaminates are found, the city will work with the DNR to comply with any regulations, Lindman said.