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Riverside Park controversy swirls as residents wait for answers

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By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — Residents in the Thomas Street neighborhood are gearing up for a public meeting in which they expect to learn more about the potential health risks of cancer-causing chemicals in their area, which includes a popular public park that borders the Wisconsin River.

During the meeting, slated for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 17 at Wausau City Hall, toxicologists are expected to offer insight on test results that revealed high levels of dioxins in the soil beneath a culvert emptying into Riverside Park. The culvert neighbors an area that once housed a cold storage building at the former SNE plant. One area of the cold storage building was used as a “drum accumulation area” for hazardous waste, which was later moved to the main Wauleco facility.

Residents say they want more testing to ensure that the park is safe. The land next to the park, a portion of which is now owned by Wauleco, has been subject to decades of remediation efforts to remove toxic substances from the soil arising from the use of pentachlorophenol, or Penta, a potent pesticide used in wood manufacturing at SNE. Repeatedly, residents have expressed concern that digging up the soil for a planned road reconstruction project along Thomas Street could be a risk to public health.

But in the days leading up to the meeting, city officials are continuing to discredit attorneys, scientists, engineers and residents who are demanding further action. In a radio interview May 14 on WSAU, Mayor Rob Mielke, referring to the dioxin controversy, said “It gets frustrating when you have some of the rabble-rousers, and their innuendo, and out and out just dishonesty.”

Public Works Director Eric Lindman has been equally vocal in his reaction to concerned neighborhood residents, suggesting that the concerns are merely a scare tactic to stall the planned Thomas Street project. A WSAW report published today quotes Lindman as saying “I do feel that this is a way to try leverage to stop the project and you know unfortunately put a fear into the general public that I don’t think is warranted.”

Much of the controversy, decades in the making, can be traced to reports completed by an organization that was at one time a wholly-owned subsidiary of the manufacturer of the chemical itself. Those reports, performed by Keystone Environmental Resources, attempted to reassure state officials that the potential risk to the public was minimal. But a string of memos shows that state officials have long had their doubts about Keystone’s assessment and have questioned for years the impact dioxins/furans related to Penta use could have on residents living in the area surrounding the former SNE plant.

A History of Controversy

From 1944 through 1986, SNE regularly dipped windows and doors into a solution containing Penta in a “drip area” with a wooden floor, according to state documents. Much of the product went through cracks in the floor and into the soil in an area where groundwater was estimated to be between 15 and 30 feet below the surface.

In the mid 1980s, SNE drew the attention of DNR officials after being forced to store thousands of pounds of hazardous waste at a cold storage facility on site in an area next to Riverside Park. For a roughly two-year period in 1984 and 1985, state documents show, SNE struggled to find a waste disposal site willing to accept the toxic substances because they contained dioxins, which prompted repeated warnings from DNR officials.

As a result, some DNR staff members had considered calling in the EPA’s immediate response group if progress was not made. In a Nov. 15, 1985 memo, DNR Solid Waste Management Coordinator Gary Kulibert warned SNE that “a number of people were getting very nervous concerning the Penta problem, including the Department of Health…and DNR staff.”

Months later, a “pool” of contaminated Penta was found floating on the groundwater under the SNE plant, prompting the DNR to give SNE seven days to commit to a cleanup plan. As part of that plan, SNE hired Keystone Environmental Resources — a subsidiary of the company manufacturing the chemical involved — to study the public health risks and reassure state representatives that the neighborhood was safe. Keystone produced a report reviewed in 1989 by the state’s Division of Health at the request of the DNR. The result was a flurry of criticism by state officials wary of the conclusions drawn by Keystone that minimized the assessment of risk.

In a March 1989 memorandum, embedded below, state toxicologist Leon John Olson, Ph.D, was sharply critical of assumptions made in the report and stated that possible routes of exposure had not been adequately explored. Further, Olson wrote, the potential effect on adjacent properties, homes, basements and gardens were not even discussed in the report and some possible effects were “summarily dismissed without adequate justification.”

In his memo, Olson also expressed concern about the impact on aquatic and terrestrial wildlife and was critical of Keystone’s assertion that fish samples taken from Lake Wausau showed “low” concentrations of dioxins and furans. “The DOH does not consider fish concentrations from 38-87 ppt of dioxins and furans to be ‘low,'” he wrote.

In 1990, Keystone ultimately responded to Olson’s concerns, insisting that further analysis was unnecessary. But DNR officials deemed some of the report’s conclusions both premature and incomplete, and little — if any — action was taken.

Notably, both Keystone and its parent company, Koppers, played a significant role in the assessment, testing and remediation components of the neighborhood in the 1980s and had heavy involvement in meetings and communications with the DNR, state documents show.

Koppers is now associated with nine EPA Superfund sites nationwide including a $90 million cleanup in Gainesville, Fla., where a neighborhood group was forced to fight for years before their claims of illnesses and deaths were taken seriously.

2006 Test Results

The test results that sparked the most recent controversy came to light in February, more than a decade after the tests were completed. Those tests revealed that soils beneath the Riverside Park culvert contained levels of hazardous substances in 2006 six times that of the most recent round of testing on nearby property. Though most residents were unaware of the testing until this year, public documents confirm that those results were sent to DNR officials in 2008, and DNR officials forwarded the information to the Marathon County Health Department.

The state toxicologist in 2008 noted that “TCDD in the culvert soils are apparently higher than in background levels.”

In a June 2008 email to DNR representative Lisa Gutknecht discussing the dioxin levels found in the park, Henry Nehls-Lowe of the state Div. of Public Health suggested the state conduct an investigation to determine whether substantial amounts of dioxin/furan contamination migrated away from the Wauleco property and onto adjacent residential properties. Though the culvert itself is not in what is considered a “residential area,” Nehls-Lowe wrote, “I would be less comfortable if these TCDD levels were in a back yard of a home with a toddler.”

But to date, no such investigation has been performed. The culvert remains uncapped, and no additional efforts have been made to retest the soil.

Critics say the city is failing to provide the public with an accurate assessment of the potential risk in the area and are openly wondering why on-site soil dioxin results at the Wauleco property and neighborhood groundwater test results are not being included in the city’s informational packet for tonight’s meeting. In an email to neighborhood resident Tom Kilian, who has played a key role in bringing these issues to light, Lindman said he believes including raw data is not helpful and can be misleading.

“I believe that many of the results have misinformation associated with them related to the actual risks to the public and the risks related to the construction,” Lindman wrote. “I will put clarification to any potential risks related to the results and the testing.  I do not feel adding the raw data results to the packet will have any benefit for the committee.”

Those documents, which were provided to Lindman weeks ago, are embedded below.

Kilian, in a written statement to Wausau Pilot and Review, expressed some concern about the city’s approach to the situation.

“We can operate on speculation or we can operate on sufficient data gained through additional testing. The City and State, based on statements made today, appear to be choosing the former,” Kilian said. “That type of approach has not worked out particularly well in the local policy arena of late, as many can note. If there is not more testing, and if this is not dealt with in a comprehensive manner, today’s presentation will not be about an ‘assessment,’ it will be a ‘whitewash’.”

1989 Keystone
2008 Wauleco

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