By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — Despite repeated assurances from city officials that any excavating of Thomas Street soils would include a water truck to minimize potential toxic dust transferred to nearby residents’ yards, crews spent several hours Thursday digging in the corridor without that safety measure in place.
City officials were unaware of the excavation, which was performed by a subcontractor hired by consultant AECOM, until concerned residents called in with complaints. Wausau Mayor Rob Mielke said Tito Excavating is working on excavation for proposed bio-filtration ponds, soil pits to determine soil types and filtration in the project area.
“Apparently, work was started early today by AECOM for that project,” Mielke said, adding that work was stopped for the day after a complaint was called in.
“We will make sure that there is a water truck there for dust control measures for future work being done on Thomas Street,” Mielke said.
Residents are calling the action careless, adding fuel to their complaints that the city is not taking the environmental risks in the area seriously. Independent tests performed in January revealed that hazardous chemicals are present in the surface soil in the area, which is slated for a major road reconstruction project. Neighbors are concerned that disturbing the soil has the potential to create significant health and public safety hazards for people who live and work in the area, a worry that city officials have repeatedly dismissed.
Mielke said crews will take dust control measures in the future but added: “A reminder, again, we have not been directed by any regulatory agencies to do any soil mitigation and the Department of Health Services has determined that there are no health risks related to the soils and test results.”
Much of the area has had a history of environmental contamination traced back to the widespread use of a chemical called Penta at the former Crestline site, which runs along Thomas Street. Now classified by the World Health Organization as a known carcinogen, Penta was used in manufacturing at the site from 1946 to 1986. The current owner, Wauleco, was sued in 2008 by 144 people who claimed toxicity in the soil and groundwater caused cancer and other health problems.
For months, residents living in the area have fought the project amid concerns that digging up the dirt in the area could spread toxic soil further into the neighborhood. Last year, neighborhood resident Tom Kilian presented members of the council with a petition signed by more than 200 people who oppose the reconstruction, but officials ultimately voted to move the project forward.
State documents show that, as recently as 2016, 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. The Wauleco site is just yards from where excavation took place on Thursday.
Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function, according to the WHO. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions.