By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — Independent environmental testing planned for the Thomas Street corridor is 10 times more sensitive than the method used by the city’s consultants and is more likely to reveal the presence of dioxins, according to an attorney representing a neighborhood group.

Milwaukee attorney Ted Warpinksi, who represents the Citizens for an Environmentally Safe Thomas Street Neighborhood, said in memos to city officials that independent testing will use an alternate EPA method and will test the top foot of soil, rather than the soil’s subsurface.

But Public Works Director Eric Lindman, in a memo to members of the city’s Capital Improvements and Street Maintenance Committee (CISM), said the city’s choice of testing methods, which cost $200 less per test, made sense for the Thomas Street project and said alternative testing methods “would have been no benefit or told us anything different.” The CISM committee will discuss the issue on Wednesday and will weigh in on a proposed 30 percent design plan to reconstruct Thomas Street from Fourth Avenue to the Wisconsin River.

The plan drew sharp criticism last week from residents attending a public meeting. City officials are taking public comment until 5 p.m. today, Dec. 5.

But even as comments are being collected, staffers are already urging the CISM committee to move forward with the controversial plan. A memo from Lindman, dated Dec. 6 but uploaded to the city’s website on Dec. 1, “highly recommends” moving forward from the current 30 percent design to the next step in the project. And the CISM committee is also considering Lindman’s request to move forward with real estate acquisition and relocation services from the same provider who handled those services for the first phase of the project, which was completed this fall.

Public comment forms are expected to be uploaded to the CISM packet either later tonight or early tomorrow, Lindman said.

Along with concerns over the potential impact a raised median could have for emergency response times and criticisms over planned bike lanes, residents continue to ask questions about the potential toxicity of the soil — and the danger to the area’s groundwater if the soil is disturbed.

That’s where independent testing is coming into play.

In an Oct. 11 letter sent to city officials, Warpinski first called into question earlier testing performed by AECOM that led city leaders to declare the project safe. That testing, Warpinski stated, was inadequate, and was “never likely to reveal any contaminants of concern.”

The new testing is expected to be performed in the coming weeks by Sand Creek Consultants.

Sand Creek engineer Peter Arntsen said he could not speak for the Thomas Street project specifically, but said that in general, dioxins are more likely to lie in topsoil because they are relatively insoluble and tend to bind to organic matter until they are disturbed.

“Really, it’s that topsoil, that top 6 inches, that you want to take a look at,” Arntsen told Wausau Pilot and Review.

Much of that area, known as the River Street neighborhood, has had a history of environmental contamination traced back to the widespread use of Penta, a known carcinogen 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 that migrated from Crestline caused cancer and other health problems.

Court filings show that surface soil and indoor dust wipes taken throughout the neighborhood continued to have dioxins more than 25 times the EPA recommended level as recently as 2006.

Now, residents want more surface samples to ensure the neighborhood and community will be safe if the second phase of a Thomas Street reconstruction plan is approved.

The CISM committee on Wednesday is expected to discuss and fine-tune Warpinski’s request for up to four tests on city-owned property. Those tests would performed at the expense of the neighborhood group.