By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — A blanket of dirt, gravel and sand that is now coating sidewalks, yards, streets and homes in the River Street neighborhood is raising alarm bells for residents and activists concerned about potential toxic soil being spread into the area.
The airborne particles flew for hours on Monday and Tuesday at the Wauleco property as a skid loader performed maintenance to smooth out the surface soil on the land, which is peppered by groundwater monitoring wells.
The property is the site of the former SNE manufacturing plant, which has been subject to years of remediation efforts to remove toxic substances from the soil. State officials say the soil’s toxicity arose from decades of widespread use of pentachlorophenol, or Penta, a wood preservation treatment used in manufacturing that was later deemed a deadly carcinogen.
The site no longer has any manufacturing buildings, as they were razed and the land blacktopped. The only physical assets are pumping equipment that is used to extract and treat groundwater contaminated by the use of Penta.
Matt Thompson, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, was not aware of this week’s activities at the site until notified Tuesday by a concerned citizen.
In an email to Wausau Pilot and Review, Thompson said he contacted Wauleco representatives Tuesday and learned the company was performing “routine maintenance” on a chip seal cover located on the property.
“I do not believe neighbors were contacted prior to the grading activity taking place,” Thompson said. “They have terminated grading activities for the day and will resume with the aid of either a water truck or rain.”
Members of a newly formed local environmental activist group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, say they are alarmed to see soil from a brownfield site spread further into the neighborhood and are urging state officials to be more proactive in their oversight of Wauleco’s operations.
The group issued this statement on Tuesday:
“It is concerning that Sentry Insurance’s WAULECO does not appear to have enough consideration for the community to better manage dust at a known dioxin-contaminated property. Importantly, the site is located in a neighborhood with an Environmental Justice population, and the citizens there — like all citizens — deserve to have their environment and health safeguarded. It is also unfortunate, if a pattern, that the DNR was not aware of the issue until it was raised by residents. We urge the DNR to exercise more rigorous oversight over and scrutiny of WAULECO’s current and former activities. In the near future, Citizens for a Clean Wausau will be sharing additional information about the WAULECO site with the public.”
The group is also concerned that rain is forcing soil from the contaminated site to run into adjacent yards and into nearby Riverside Park. That concern is illustrated in a video captured this summer by a member of the group.
In his email, Thompson said gravel spreading off the site and onto neighboring sidewalks will be swept up.
“I do not believe there is a risk to the community due to the lack of surficial soil contamination at the site,” Thompson wrote in his email. “I’ve requested that Wauleco take steps to suppress dust while performing activities that may generate dust as a matter of nuisance control for the neighborhood.”
An email seeking comment from Dale Grosskurth of the Marathon County Health Department was not immediately returned on Tuesday.
Photos and videos courtesy of Citizens for a Clean Wausau.