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Amid alleged 3M air pollution violations, neighborhood group vows to monitor local polluters

in Breaking News/Investigations/News

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — Less than two years after a 3M Co. pollution control case brought by the Wisconsin Department of Justice ended in a controversial settlement, the company is again facing allegations of violating state air pollution control laws at the company’s Wausau plant, records show.

The plant is located at 144 E. Rosencrans St., just off First Avenue in a mostly residential area.

Some Wausau residents say this is just one of many serious environmental problems in the River Street neighborhood on multiple fronts that continue to plague the community. Now, more than a dozen residents from a range of Wausau-area neighborhoods are fighting back, creating a formal group to monitor polluters and pollution in the area. The group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, first met in June, and has been in talks with environmental organizations and scientists about their concerns.

Tom Kilian, a founding member of the group, supplied documents for this story received through open records requests to the state DNR.

The latest issue to surface, outlined in those documents, mimics the problem that prompted the 2016 settlement. In the earlier case, pollution control systems called “baghouses” failed to operate for brief times in many cases – ranging from 19 seconds to about five minutes – over 26 days between June 2, 2014, and June 29, 2014, in Wausau and during three days between Sept. 4, 2014, and Aug. 1, 2015, at a quarry outside of town. Baghouses filter and trap particulates before pollutants can be released into the air.

The company estimated 1,442 pounds of particulate were emitted into the air in one brief instance, according to court documents. This time, however, the pollution control device was shut off for more than 4.5 hours.

The most recent violation happened on April 13, 2018, when an electrician working in the shipping area shut down one of the pollution control systems to work on the line. After the the repair was complete, the line operator restarted operations but failed to put the system back into production mode, which would have activated the pollution control system. About 4.5 hours later, a maintenance worker walking by recognized that the emission controls were not running and notified the operator.

3M officials said they did not recognize that when the system was shut down for maintenance, the process could be restarted without placing the line in production mode, bypassing emission controls and releasing fine particulate matter into the air.

Just how much pollution was released is still not fully known, as the Department of Natural Resources questioned the calculations provided to the department by 3M. Company officials immediately notified the DNR about the issue by submitting a deviation report that calculated 2.3 pounds of pollutants were released into the air during the incident.

But DNR officials balked at the company’s calculation method, calling the 2.3-pound estimate “likely conservative, especially when considering that the rock in this emission unit is finished product which has dust suppressant applied.” 3M requested that the DNR allow it to use emissions data from its Little Rock, Ark. facility instead of 1995 stack testing data from its Wausau plant. The company ultimately accepted the use of the Wausau stack data and responded with a new estimate of 299 pounds, a number that is still unclear, according to DNR documents.

The DNR is asking the company for documentation that all systems using emission control devices in the same way have been evaluated and to show that actions were taken to ensure a similar incident does not occur at another process at the facility. That information, along with an evaluation of previous testing information, was due to the DNR by Aug. 1, but 3M on July 16 petitioned the DNR to extend that deadline to Sept. 1.

In state documents, obtained through an open records request, company officials say they have implemented new processes and training to avoid future incidents.

The company drew the attention of DNR officials in January, who sent a letter of noncompliance when investigators discovered that 3M had not reported methanol or volatile organic compounds for three separate processes in 2016, the same year the company reached its settlement with the DOJ. The same values were missing for 2017, documents state. In a March 21, 2018, letter to Dave Picka at 3M, the DNR stated the company had not reported more than 32 tons of VOCs and nearly 5 tons of methanol in emission inventory in 2016 alone, giving the company 10 days to respond with an explanation along with the missing numbers for 2017. Picka responded one day later with the missing numbers: 35.2 tons of VOCs and 3.8 tons of methanol.

Breathing VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, can cause difficulty breathing and nausea, and can damage the central nervous system, as well as other organs in addition to causing cancer, according to the American Lung Association. Outdoors, they can react with nitrogen oxides to produce ozone pollution, the nation’s most widespread outdoor air pollutant. Acute exposure to methanol can cause visual disturbances and neurological damage, according to the EPA.

From left: Judith Miller, Jerry Buerer and Ka Lo are three of more than a dozen founding members of Citizens for a Clean Wausau, a group to monitor polluters in Wausau. Photo courtesy of Citizens for a Clean Wausau

Fine-free settlement prompts surprise, criticism

The discrepancies noted by the DNR began just three months after 3M resolved its 2016 pollution case by agreeing to spend roughly $665,000 on improvements to pollution control equipment in Wausau, where crushed rock is screened and colored for use in roofing material. Microscopic particles created in the process are subject to pollution control laws because they are connected to serious health problems when inhaled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the 2016 case, DNR inspectors found air pollution control equipment failed repeatedly in both 2014 and 2015. Unlike the most recent violation, which was reported within a day of the incident, the company then failed to report the breakdowns promptly and did not maintain records used to determine if equipment was being properly maintained, DNR air management engineer Jessica Kramer and DNR enforcement specialist Ashley Gray said in a 2015 memorandum recommending referring the case to the Justice Department.

The November 2016 settlement between the DOJ and 3M was the first time in decades in which a Wisconsin attorney general took a polluter to court without winning a penalty.

Critics say settling major pollution cases without a fine fails to send a strong message to businesses and does nothing to deter future violations. A Wisconsin State Journal story published in the wake of the settlement quotes George Meyer, who led the DNR enforcement division before serving as secretary from 1992 to 2001, as saying the action did not provide “effective deterrence for the companies that want to cut corners on pollution controls.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which first reported on the  settlement, quoted Tom Dawson, who supervised the Justice Department environment unit from 2003 until he retired last year, saying he and others pushed for a fine between $100,000 and $1 million, but Schimel’s chief of staff directed them to require only the supplemental environmental project.

Safety data sheets for roofing products produced in Wausau, posted on the company’s website, include warnings that the materials used “may cause cancer” and “causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure” to the respiratory system.

The company has been repeatedly under fire both in Wausau and in other states where they operate. In February, the company settled a contentious lawsuit in Minnesota after agreeing to give the state $850 million to resolve the largest environmental lawsuit in the state’s history. The lawsuit, which arose amid allegations of decades-long contamination of groundwater in the Minneapolis area, was settled one day before a trial was set to begin.

Once named the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, 3M has been operating in Wausau since 1929 and employs about 150 people. The Wausau plant is the company’s oldest operating manufacturing facility in the world.

Citizens for a Clean Wausau will file additional open records requests in the near future.

This is one of a series of stories on citizen response to environmental issues in the Wausau area. Support to Wausau Pilot and Review has been provided by the Solutions Journalism Network.

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