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City takes no action on Riverside Park culvert while environmental concerns linger

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Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to note that two toxicologists will not appear at the next meeting of the Parks Department. That invitation was put on hold by Alderman Pat Peckham after city officials asked for more time to analyze the test results.

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — Despite DNR recommendations and test results that show high levels of toxins in soils beneath a culvert discharging into Riverside Park, city officials have no current plan to retest the soil or cap the culvert, according to emails and other public documents.

This is the third time in recent months that DNR officials have confirmed that contaminant levels in the River Street neighborhood exceed state standards, after neighborhood residents sounded the alarm.

The culvert sits at the top of a western slope that declines into the park’s common area, not far from the Wisconsin River and just below the train tracks. Though the culvert discharge is located in a brushy area not typically accessed by park-goers, the runoff appears to flow downhill, prompting safety concerns from neighborhood residents who regularly use the park to walk their dogs, play with their children, and enjoy the park’s scenic setting.

In a Feb. 28 email to Wausau Pilot and Review. Public Works Director Eric Lindman said the stormwater ponds that were constructed retain and carry the water to stormwater lines on Thomas Street, which means the culvert does not take runoff. But a photo taken just this week in the park clearly shows discharge flowing from the culvert.

Photo of culvert discharging into Riverside Park taken March 17, 2018

In 2006, three surface soil samples were taken: one from the culvert inlet, one from the culvert outlet and one from a residential property on River Street. The PACE laboratory report, prepared for the Friebert, Finerty & St. John law firm, was analyzed by the same laboratory used by both the city of Wausau and private residents for the Thomas Street corridor testing this year and are part of court documents used in a 2008 lawsuit against entities associated with the former Crestline/SNE factory.

The results, obtained by Wausau Pilot and Review, showed dioxin levels exceeded state standards for eight dioxan/furans. In one case, for the dioxin PeCDD, the level was more than 14 times the residual contaminant level recommended by the EPA for non-industrial properties. Other dioxin levels reported were more than six times the exceedances shown in the most recent round of independent testing on nearby soil, completed earlier this year.

Public documents show the DNR received the lab results on June 5, 2008 by email and forwarded those results to the Marathon County Health Department by email on June 6, 2008.

After acquiring a copy of the sample results for the culvert inlet and discharge, a Thomas Street resident brought the concern to the Wausau City Council as early as the summer of 2017 through public comment in relation to neighborhood dioxin concerns.

Just this month, the DNR, at the request of neighborhood residents, took a second look at the test results and confirmed that non-industrial residual contaminant level dioxin exceedances existed in both the culvert inlet and culvert outflow. That information, along with a recommendation to test the area further with three soil borings each in both the inlet and outflow area, was conveyed to city officials by the DNR more than a week ago.

But the recommendation is just that — a recommendation, since the DNR cannot force a property owner to perform such testing, even if the property belongs to the city.

Two toxicologists from the Department of Health Services were initially expected to attend the next regularly scheduled meeting of the parks and recreation committee to discuss the findings and potential risks to the community. The invitation was put on hold by Alderman Pat Peckham after city officials asked for more time to review the matter internally.

The area adjacent to the park has been subject to remediation efforts to remove toxic substances from the soil since the mid 1980s arising from the use of pentachlorophenol, or Penta, which was used for decades at the former SNE manufacturing plant. According to state documents, nearly 150,000 gallons of Penta have been removed from the ground since 1991.

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 and remain in use today. And 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.

Residents say they are concerned about the potential impact to the Wisconsin River as well as the city’s groundwater. The state’s groundwater quality enforcement standard for Penta is 1 ppb. But test wells near the river show Penta levels as high as 9,600 ppb in 1992 and 6,000 ppb in 2016.

Also in 2016, documents show that 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, according to state documents. While there is no pipe discharging Penta into the river, the subsurface area where contaminated groundwater flows into the river remains a concern, according to the DNR.

Dioxins have been considered highly toxic and able to cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization. But nearly a decade after those results were reported, no action has been taken by government entities to close the culvert or do further testing to determine how far the contamination may have traveled into the park.

Lindman, in a March 19 email to Wausau Pilot and Review, appeared to minimize the concern over the culvert and said he has been unable to find any documentation or reports related to the testing around the site. He also said the city will only perform testing if they are required to do so.

“At this time the City has no plans of doing anything with this culvert and we do not have any plans to complete additional testing,” Lindman wrote. “Typically, the City would only perform testing if required by a project or by the DNR or other regulatory agency. I am hoping there is actually a report of findings with the test results, typically without a report and explanation and background the test results are left open ended.”

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