By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — A Harvard-trained environmental scientist with extensive experience researching dioxins is raising significant questions about the safety of Riverside Park and the Thomas Street neighborhood.
Stephen Lester, science director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va., has been closely following the controversy over dioxins in Wausau and has reviewed test results along with statements made by city officials and state toxicologists. His conclusion: Dioxins found in the Wausau neighborhood would be a “huge mistake” to ignore.
“It is present in the soil in this neighborhood at levels that are significant,” Lester told Wausau Pilot and Review. “These findings should raise a red flag that requires action be taken to further investigate the extent of dioxin contamination in this neighborhood.”
Test results from 2006 in Riverside Park culvert just yards from where families play with their children showed dioxin levels of 110 ppt. And test results in 1986 from underneath the former SNE plant showed dioxins present at levels of 174 parts per billion, or ppb.
Those levels, Lester said, are even higher than the concentration used in 1982 as the basis for relocating the entire town of Times Beach, Missouri, where 2,240 residents were completely evacuated due to dioxin contamination. There, the contamination level was 100 ppb.
Two state toxicologists appeared in May at a public meeting to allay fears about contamination in the neighborhood. If the toxicologists won over city officials with their analysis, they were not as successful in convincing neighborhood residents. One issue, Lester noted, is that the presentation focused on the “immediate effects” of dioxin. But that’s not how dioxins work, Lester said. Instead, those effects accumulate slowly, over time.
“Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals ever tested,” Lester said. “It can cause a variety of adverse health effects at extremely low doses including endocrine disrupting, immune, developmental, and reproductive effects as well as cancer.”
State cleanup values
Many state agencies have set cleanup values for dioxin in is soil for residential use that are consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s alternative Preliminary Remediation Goals. A total of 23 states have established unrestricted residential cleanup values for dioxin in soil. Wisconsin is not among them.
Wisconsin does have a clean-up standard but the term ‘clean up’ is a bit of a misnomer, said Matt Thompson, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin DNR.
“We use residual contaminant levels (RCLs) to identify soil that may pose a risk to someone exposed to it.”
If the concentration exceeds the screening level, Thompson said, the responsible party would be required to remove the direct contact risk through excavation, cleaning the soil, or a cap to eliminate the exposure risk.
But the DNR is also limited in its ability require a remedy on contaminated soils not subject to regulation under Wisconsin law. Thompson confirmed that test results from three neighborhood sites — 117 River St., 1003 Emter St., and from beneath a culvert in Riverside Park — do exceed the RCL standard for non-industrial sites. In these cases, the state can recommend further testing or cleanup, but cannot require it, according to Thompson.
Of the states that do have standards, 17 are less than the EPA’s proposed interim remediation goal value of 72 parts per trillion (ppt) for unrestricted use. Two other states, Michigan and Georgia, have values that are higher, but in close proximity; two additional states, Pennsylvania and Hawaii, have standards that are substantially higher; and two states, Alabama and Texas, have adopted the current EPA standard of 1,000 ppt.
All 23 of these states used cancer risk as the basis for establishing their soil cleanup level for dioxin.
Lester and his colleagues at CHEJ have been fighting for decades for better cleanup standards based on preventive models of human exposure that protect groundwater, drinking water, surface water, fish and wildlife. In a 2009 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Lester urged the federal government to adopt higher end toxicity values as a way to protect the public, especially children, from risk.
“The final cleanup level for dioxin should be established as a standard so it will be consistently applied at sites across the country,” Lester wrote. “If only a soil cleanup level guidance is set, then EPA, state and local agencies, and responsible parties can choose to ignore the cleaup guidance…and allow for higher levels of dioxin to remain on site.”
Research shows disturbing parallels between the Wausau situation and a disaster that unfolded in the late 1970s in Love Canal, New York, where housewife-turned-activist Lois Gibbs helped convince then-President Jimmy Carter to come to town in 1980 and remove 900 families from a 21,000-ton toxic dump.
Spurred by her own son’s developmental issues, Gibbs launched grassroots door-to-door health campaign that revealed a series of inexplicable illnesses—epilepsy, asthma, migraines, and nephrosis—and abnormally high rates of birth defects and miscarriages in the Love Canal neighborhood. Scientists later discovered that consecutive wet winters in the late 1970s raised the water table and caused chemicals to leach into the basements and yards of neighborhood residents, as well as into the playground of the elementary school built directly over the canal.
President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency in 1978 and had the federal government relocate 239 families. This left 700 families who federal officials viewed as being at insufficient risk to warrant relocation, even though tests conducted by the NYS Department of Health revealed that toxic substances were leaching into their homes. After another hard battle, activists forced Carter to declare a second state of emergency in 1981, during which the remaining families were relocated. The total cost for relocation of all the families was $17 million.
Lawmakers used the national publicity generated by the Love Canal disaster to push for new legislation to hold polluters financially responsible for cleaning up their toxic waste sites. The result was the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act—better known as Superfund.
The fight for environmental justice in Love Canal took years. There, the city’s mayor and other officials repeatedly rejected residents’ concerns and dismissed Gibbs as nothing more than a “hysterical housewife.” In Wausau, members of the neighborhood group Citizens for an Environmentally Safe Thomas Street Neighborhood have endured similar criticism, being called “rabble rousers” who are using “scare tactics” to stop a planned road project.
Dioxins: The common link
At the root of the controversy in Wausau, Times Beach and Love Canal are dioxins, among the most toxic chemicals ever tested, according to CHEJ. The potential adverse health effects, even at extremely low doses, include endocrine disruptions, immune and developmental disorders, reproductive effects and cancer, said Lester, who was appointed by New York officials to serve as a technical advisor during the Love Canal crisis.
City officials here have repeatedly claimed that there is no link to Wauleco, something some residents and experts find astounding given the proximity to the former SNE manufacturing plant that operated for decades on the property.
The Wauleco property has been subject to years of remediation efforts to remove toxic substances from the soil arising from the use of pentachlorophenol, or Penta, which was regularly used at SNE. In 1985, a flurry of communication between state officials and SNE shows growing concern for the impact of dioxin components on the neighborhood. Perhaps more tellingly, multiple documents point out the extreme sensitivity of the dioxin issue, which had become a political hot potato at both the state and federal level in the wake of Love Canal and other cleanups across the country.
Testing performed in 1986 on soil samples at the property show dioxin levels of 146 parts per billion (ppb) at the surface. At half a foot below the surface, levels were 174 ppb.
Dr. William Tosacano, a well known toxicologist and former environmental sciences department head at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, called those levels “very high,” even by industrial standards.
“The acceptable level by EPA standards is 1 part per billion,” Toscano said. “From the point of view from health risk assessment , an acceptable level is 2 parts per trillion.”
Critics and environmental advocates say later testing was only performed to detect the dioxin Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, or TCDD. But officials had long known that this specific dioxin was unlikely to be found because it was not the main issue on the property. Despite warnings from state officials, testing was not performed for other dioxin that was more likely to be found in the area, leading to results that appeared to minimize the risk.
Connor Forest Product Industries also operated along the Thomas Street corridor in Wausau for decades. In September 1985, more than a decade after the facility closed, the DNR launched a probe into illegally buried hazardous waste at the site that sprang from the discovery of barrels buried at the company’s Laona location.
In 1986, the city of Wausau purchased the property where Connor Forest Industries once operated. Public documents show city officials were concerned about potential liabilities linked to contamination on the CFI property from chemical contaminants that could impact soils and groundwater. Some of the contamination on the property was believed to have originated at SNE, documents show.
As part of the purchase agreement, both CFI and SNE agreed to indemnify and hold the city harmless from all liabilities incurred by the purchase. In return, the city agreed to promptly notify SNE of any monitoring or requested or required remedial action resulting from contamination, including dioxins and furans. But in order for SNE’s parent company, Wauleco, to be held liable, officials would have to prove that the contamination is directly related to the company’s past operations.
Dioxin Soil Cleanup Standards/Guidelines by State for Residential Use
(All values are in parts per trillion)
New Hampshire 9.0
Source: USEPA, Office of Research and Development, National Center for Environmental Assessment