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Thomas Street contamination: Scare tactic or wakeup call?

in Investigations/Wisconsin news

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — Residents in the River Street neighborhood are anxiously awaiting news of the city’s next move in the Thomas Street reconstruction plan, even as Wausau’s mayor calls the latest round of environmental testing an irresponsible scare tactic.

Mayor Rob Mielke made the comments Monday during a radio interview on WSAU.

“We’re not going to be doing any construction there anyway,” Mielke said, referring to the locations where independent soil testing revealed the presence of dioxins and and a resulting elevated cancer risk in the area. “I think some of the fears that were put out there, a scare tactic if you will, was unneeded and kind of irresponsible.”

Members of the neighborhood group Citizens for an Environmentally Safe Thomas Street, however, say the tests are vindication for long-held fears about dioxins and other substances that they suspect are widespread throughout the neighborhood and are not limited to one or two so-called hot spots.

Pete Arntsen, a senior hydrogeologist with Sand Creek Consultants, said the dioxins/furans found were associated with pentachlorophenol, or Penta, which was used for decades at the former SNE manufacturing plant. Those dioxins/furans were then transported through wind and stormwater runoff to areas beyond the SNE property and into the River Street neighborhood. Sand Creek Consultants performed the independent tests paid for by the citizen group.

Considering a predominant wind direction from the west and stormwater drainage to the east, areas east of the facility are likely to be an area of accumulation for migrating substances, Arntsen said.

“In short, the substances were released during the manufacturing process and then migrated east via wind and water,” Arntsen told Wausau Pilot and Review.

While Penta was also transported off site and may have been a concern at the time, it’s the persistent dioxins and furans that are the concern now, Arntsen said.

Dioxins and furans don’t easily break down but can later be spread by mechanical processes such as digging or raking. Left undisturbed, the substances tend to resist transport, which is why they are more easily detected near the base of topsoil. A small percentage will leach and enter the deeper soil horizons and eventually groundwater.

The Sand Creek tests analyzed soil taken from about 8 inches beneath the surface. The city’s testing, performed at Meilke’s request, used a different process and focused on soil in an area where dioxins would be less likely to be found, according to a letter to city officials from the citizen group’s attorney, Ted Warpinski.

The Wausau group that paid for the testing is hardly alone in their battle to protect the community from potential health hazards associated with dioxins. A number of neighborhood groups have actively advocated for their safety in similar circumstances.

In Florida, for example, Gainesville residents have been protesting, testifying of their families’ illnesses and deaths, and demanding environmental justice and permanent relocation for over fifty years. There, alarming levels of dioxins were detected in a 2-mile radius surrounding a former wood manufacturing plant, an area that was declared a Superfund site more than three decades ago. After years of wrangling and negotiations, the EPA and Beazer East, the company legally responsible for the contaminated site, in 2013 signed a binding agreement to move the $90 million cleanup ahead, but only after a neighborhood group sued to make it happen.

Penta and other chemicals widely used in wood manufacturing processes were for years manufactured by Koppers, a company that is now associated with nine EPA Superfund sites nationwide including the Gainesville site.

With the excessive amount of documented contamination in the River Street neighborhood, it is not entirely clear why the Wauleco property, where SNE was located, was not given Superfund status but was instead managed by the DNR as a brownfield site.

Documents discovered in the archived papers of former Congressman Dave Obey show dioxin contamination was a major concern for his office in 1986, when a “pool” of contaminated Penta was found floating on the groundwater under the SNE plant. SNE had been the Crestline Company until the early 1980s, when owner Larry Riordan sold the plant to Sentry.

In May 1986, amid rising concerns about potential groundwater and food chain contamination from Penta, the Department of Natural Resources gave the company seven days to commit to groundwater cleanup processes. The EPA was then poised to move in with “emergency action” if cooperation between the DNR and SNE broke down, according to a memo in the Obey papers. At that time, according to handwritten notes in the file, the EPA wanted to send in a team but the DNR was able to work out a plan with the company instead.

Source: Archived papers of former Congressman Dave Obey, from May 22, 1986

The most pressing concern, according to the Obey papers, was to ensure that spring rains did not cause groundwater to rise up into people’s basements, spreading the contamination further. Amid those concerns, Obey prepared a statement that appears in his archived papers, but was not released publicly. In his unreleased statement, Obey urged people to “take adequate precautions to protect their health.”

“Dioxin is nothing to fool around with,” Obey wrote. “It is one of the most potent chemicals known, something which our Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange can attest to.”

Also in 1986, the DNR discovered dioxin in samples of the Wisconsin River and tested fish taken from the river to determine potential health risks associated with the discovery.

Source: Unreleased statement from former Congressman Dave Obey dated May 1986, contained in Obey’s archived papers.

SNE in 1985 installed 20 groundwater monitoring wells in the area, with seven more installed in 1986 as part of a cleanup plan with the DNR. Those wells, which pepper the neighborhood and extend to the Wisconsin River, still exist today. When in 1986 dioxins were initially found in one of the groundwater monitoring wells, the company sent samples in for testing. The company performing the tests was Koppers, according to DNR reports.

While Obey and others in 1986 were contemplating action, city officials and DNR representatives went door to door in a four-block radius, visiting 200 homes to determine if private wells had been contaminated and warn residents not to use or install them in the area, according to the Obey documents. Initially, no contamination was found. But a month later, a city employee discovered a 20-year-old homemade well dug into a basement floor in a home in the affected area, which revealed a pool of water with Penta floating on top, according to the Marathon County Health Department.

Still, city officials said there was no risk to the city’s water supply, because groundwater enters a treatment system that effectively reduces Penta concentration before discharging the water to the city’s sanitary sewer system.

There is some concern that city officials, particularly members of the Wausau City Council, have not always received accurate information from which to base their Thomas Street decisions. A DNR representative on Oct. 14, 2014 told council members that: “The only sample results we have for dioxins are not on Thomas Street. There is one sample from a yard on River Street and then two samples along the railroad tracks over by the 3M/former SNE property.”

But that comment appears to be misleading, as the DNR did indeed have both soil and groundwater dioxin sample results from Thomas Street when that comment was made. Test results, obtained by Wausau Pilot and Review, were submitted to the DNR during Wauleco’s April 14, 2014 draft justification for case closure. TRC, a consultant firm working on behalf of Wauleco, submitted that document in 2014 to summarize site progress and gauge whether or not the DNR would consider closing the site, something the DNR declined to do at that time.

According to state documents, nearly 150,000 gallons of Penta have been removed from the ground since 1991. Despite several decades of groundwater treatment, the 2015 annual groundwater monitoring report submitted in August 2016 to the DNR reveals that the annual average Penta concentration in the groundwater entering the extraction system was 4,377 parts per billion (ppb), according to DNR records. In test wells near the Wisconsin River, Penta levels were as high as 9,600 ppb in 1992, state records show.

For perspective, the state’s groundwater quality enforcement standard for Penta is 1 ppb.

State documents show that, as recently as 2016, DNR officials considered the conditions at the Wauleco site to be “very challenging,” estimating that as much as 420,000 gallons of “free product” still existed in the subsurface.

Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function, according to the World Health Organization. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions.

City officials say they are awaiting a DNR review of Sand Creek’s test results and expect to discuss the DNR’s findings during the council’s Feb. 27 regular meeting. Last week, members of the city’s capital improvements and street maintenance committee narrowly approved moving forward with the Thomas Street design plan by a vote of 3-2. Lisa Rasmussen, Karen Kellbach and Sherry Abitz voted in favor of the plan, with Gary Gisselman and Becky McElhaney opposed.

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