By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — Independent tests performed in January revealed that hazardous chemicals do exist in the surface soil in an area slated for a major road reconstruction project, Wausau Pilot and Review has learned.
The bottom line, according to a DNR worksheet attached to the report: the location needs further cleanup to lower contaminant levels and has an elevated cancer and hazard risk.
The results are bittersweet for neighborhood residents, who say the tests, paid for by a group of concerned neighborhood residents, revealed what many have long suspected: that disturbing the soil has the potential to create significant health and public safety hazards for people who live and work in the area. The test results were given to city officials late Tuesday afternoon, two days before members of the capital improvements and street maintenance committee are expected to approve a 60 percent design plan for the hotly debated project.
In an Oct. 11 letter sent to city officials, Milwaukee attorney Ted Warpinski 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.”
But Public Works Director Eric Lindman, in a November memo to city leaders, said Wausau’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.” Lindman then assured city leaders the soil in the area was safe.
But residents along the corridor disagreed and pooled their resources to hire Warpinski, who also played a role in a 2008 lawsuit involving contaminants in the area. The group also paid for the Jan. 9 testing, performed by Sand Creek Consultants. Those tests, which reviewed samples from the top 8 inches of soil near the base of the topsoil, used a test 10 times more sensitive than the method used by the city’s consultants.
Two of the four soil samples collected in January show dioxins and furans that exceed allowable hazard limits.
Concerns about soil contamination in the area can be traced back nearly 80 years, to a July 22, 1937 story in the Wausau Pilot, the city’s first newspaper. 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. That property runs along the Thomas Street corridor slated for construction beginning this year.
According to the lawsuit, from about 1946 to 1986, manufacturing operations there 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 regularly spilled and discharged into the environment over a span of more than 40 years. 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 he
alth problems, including Hodgin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast, cancer, liver cancer, brain cancer, stomach cancer, thyroid cancer, 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 Department of Natural Resources to extract Penta from the ground. Additional groundwater monitoring wells are scattered throughout the neighborhood.
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.
The Crestline/Wauleco property at the heart of the lawsuit is now owned by Sentry, court records show, which has also contracted AECOM for multiple Stevens Point-area projects. AECOM is spearheading the Thomas Street reconstruction plan.
The next steps for the city remain unclear. Wausau Mayor Rob Mielke, in an email to Wausau Pilot and Review, said it is too early to comment on the test results.
Warpinski could not immediately be reached for comment.