Toxic secrets: Pollution, evasion and fear in Wausau’s River Street neighborhood

in News

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU – As Wausau edges forward on a planned road reconstruction and expansion of the River Edge Trail, a local citizens group is calling for greater transparency and better communication on environmental issues in the Thomas Street region.

The request, by Citizens for a Clean Wausau, calls for the city to establish a page or section of its website to provide citizens with easy access to environmental records that relate to the project zones and project properties. The group formed earlier this year in response to ongoing concerns about toxicity in the soil, air and water around the Thomas Street region. Members quickly learned how time consuming and expensive obtaining those records can be; now, they’re hoping city officials help make the process easier and more transparent in the future.

According to a statement issued by the group, the timing couldn’t be better.

“With the rezoning of 1300 Cleveland Avenue – the former Connor Forest Industries property – from industrial to residential, and the planning of the River Edge Trail expansion, this would be an ideal time for the city to begin this type of effort,” the statement reads.

Wausau Pilot and Review reached out Monday to Mayor Robert Mielke, Public Works Director Eric Lindman and all members of the Wausau City Council for comment on the group’s requests and the information in this story. None have responded.

One of the key tension points for the group is phase two of the Thomas Street reconstruction project, which involves the stretch from Fourth Avenue to the Thomas Street bridge. Years in the making, the project has the potential to transform the landscape of one of the city’s three east-west thoroughfares. But residents, including members of the citizen group, have waged an ongoing, valiant campaign to oppose the project amid a range of concerns. Front and center: ongoing, documented fears over toxicity in the soil due to decades of manufacturing activity in the area, as well as lingering doubt that the project is truly necessary.

In this February 2018 file photo, Tom Kilian speaks to a group of demonstrators outside City Hall who demanded additional soil testing along the Thomas Street corridor. Photo credit: Shereen Siewert/Wausau Pilot and Review

Tom Kilian, a neighborhood resident who co-founded the citizen’s group, is one of the city’s most outspoken critics when it comes to the city’s plans for the area. A soft-spoken, thoughtful man who has until now led a largely quiet life, Kilian has quickly become the voice of opposition to the project. But the group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, is also serving as a watchdog of sorts, monitoring polluters and pollution throughout the area.

Through a series of open records requests, a wealth of information about the difficult environmental challenges in the area has been uncovered. The documents show a long, well-documented history of contamination in the area – and a startling lack of cleanup. But the citizen group is vowing to change that, both by keeping the public informed and by demanding action from local and state officials.

One member of the group, Dr. Jerrold Buerer, said residents are facing a “David and Goliath” situation similar to what other communities have faced in their fight for environmental justice.

“Speaking as a sociologist, it should be noted that unfortunately this Thomas Street contamination situation is not unique,” Buerer said. “Rather, it has much in common with other such community episodes:  it’s a David and Goliath situation where a band of citizens from a very modest neighborhood, with limited financial resources to spare, goes up against a national or multi-national corporation, complete with its staff of in-house lawyers.  One corporate strategy is to simply wear down the Davids, though from what I have witnessed from our citizen’s group, I doubt very much if this would be a wise, practical tactic in this situation.”

A historical perspective

One of the group’s most pressing and immediate concerns is that of the Thomas Street reconstruction plan which they oppose because of long-held fears over toxicity in the soil from operations at a brownfield site that has undergone significant remediation since the 1980s and has been the subject of at least two lawsuits.

Today, the site is a barren, fenced-in field dotted with wells erected to extract toxic chemicals from the ground. But for many years, the property, now referred to as the Wauleco site, was occupied by a large-scale window and door manufacturing company that used chemicals in processing that polluted the ground and threatened the city’s groundwater.

Documents show the property first attracted the attention of the Department of Natural Resources in 1972 when the state issued a special order to then-owner Crestline relating to air pollution at the facility. At the time, media reports revealed that the company was burning 400 tons of wood waste and sawdust containing processed residue monthly at the site. The DNR threatened to fine the company anywhere from $10 to $5,000 per day if the burning continued and ordered the company to conform to solid waste disposal standards. Burning such materials is subject to strict regulations because pollutants can be emitted in the burning process, creating a potential additional health risk, according to the DNR.

But a June 28, 2012 deposition given by Bob Zastrow, a former longtime maintenance supervisor at SNE, showed the company failed to comply with the DNR’s orders; burning continued until at least 1984, apparently without penalty.

Then in 1984, two years after SNE Corp. merged with the previous owner, Harris-Crestline Corp., state and local pressure on the company increased. The crux of the issue: in 1944, Crestline began using a liquid wood preservative, commonly called Penta, in a “dip line” in an old single-story building with wood slat floors over an earth floor. Wood pieces to be treated were soaked in the tank, removed by an elevator and were then allowed to drain over the floor.

Though part of the floor was underlain by steel pans that collected and returned the drainage, DNR documents show that SNE officials in 1984 recognized that the existing system allowed Penta to drip into the earth, posing a potential risk to the city’s groundwater and immediately notified the DNR. To help mitigate the risk, officials implemented a new Penta treatment line to replace the dip tank and eliminated rail deliveries of the chemical as an extra safety precaution. SNE submitted a site plan to the DNR in December 1984 for future testing of both soil and groundwater on their property, and state officials commended SNE for their proactive approach.

But the site plan and investigation documents, filed just two months after SNE filed a lawsuit against select Harris-Crestline shareholders for fraud, were the start of a decades-long conflict that eventually pitted neighborhood residents against company officials, property owners, and city officials.

Incidentally, during that time, the nearby neighborhood south of Chellis Street had just been incorporated into the city of Wausau. Pre-incorporation, homes in that area weren’t served by the city’s municipal water system, but by individual shallow wells. State officials weren’t worried about Penta contaminating the city’s water system, because the wells supplying Wausau’s water were too far from the plant. But they were concerned that the nearby homes with individual wells could pose a potential problem. Because of its chemical makeup, engineers knew, spilled Penta would eventually volatilize, leaving a solid residue that floats on water. And soil borings tested by the company to satisfy the DNR showed a strong odor and presence of Penta not just at depths of four to five feet or slightly lower, but also at 25 feet: groundwater level.

After the discovery, officials visited more than 200 homes in a door-to-door effort to determine if private wells had been contaminated. Along the way, they warned residents to stop using the wells for safety reasons, according to documents contained in the papers of former U.S. Congressman Dave Obey, who represented Wisconsin for decades. One month into the initiative, a city employee discovered a 20-year-old homemade well dug into a basement floor in the 100 block of East Thomas Street. Inside was a pool of water with several inches of Penta floating on top, according to Marathon County Health Department documents. A second well was also found, this time in the 1400 block of Cleveland Avenue. And a third well was found in the 100 block of Edwards Street.

All three wells showed significant contamination, according to the DNR. The level of Penta in the basement well was exceptionally high, at 2,600 mg/l. A July 15, 2986 letter from the DNR’s Gary Kulibert to Howard Dolce of SNE requested that the private well also be tested for dioxin, but there is no indication that such testing ever took place.

Attempts to reach the residents from 1986 at each of the properties listed failed; both renters listed in city documents died of cancer-related illnesses, according to their obituaries.

A short time after the discoveries were made, then-Utlilities Director Joe Gehin alerted the DNR and the Marathon County Health Department about the wells. In his report, obtained by Citizens for a Clean Wausau and provided to Wausau Pilot and Review, Gehin told city officials the wells weren’t used for drinking. But they were used for watering lawns and gardens, which experts say likely spread the contamination further throughout the neighborhood. But despite contaminated water being routinely used to water lawns for decades, there is no record of surface soils ever being performed on those properties to assess the danger.

Public records show Gehin, who later became a member of the same city council that approved the Thomas Street project, expressed extreme disappointment that SNE officials discharged groundwater waste from Penta monitoring wells directly into the city’s sewer system without the city’s permission. In his March 30, 1987 memo, Gehin stated that the DNR knew about these events but failed to notify the proper authorities. What’s more, Gehin said then that staff did not understand the “hazard associated with this type of contaminant” and discusses its “serious nature.”

Concerns about SNE groundwater contamination were serious enough in 1989 to temporarily halt construction of the new wastewater treatment facility.The delay was prompted by the discovery of a contaminated pool of underground water that state officials feared could leak into the area’s groundwater if construction continued.

Construction eventually resumed. But less than two years later, in June 1991, a full 50 percent of Wauleco’s Penta-extraction waste started being sent to the Wausau Waterworks system. Today, the EPA is still grappling with the environmental impacts of that decision and is still monitoring Penta levels in the Wisconsin River.

Curiously, in August, 2018, Wausau Water Works data obtained from the EPA shows the highest spike of Penta in roughly four years. The outfall, according to city documents, discharges into the west bank of the Wisconsin River, a quarter mile downstream of the Thomas Street Bridge.

Toxic waste removal: What can we learn from other sites?

Getting rid of toxic waste used to be simple. In Haverford, Penn., National Wood Preservers, which treated wood on the site from 1947 to 1963, would take their liquid waste lined with Penta to a well, and dump it down. Or, they would simply toss the chemical-laden liquid onto the ground. A nearby stream was contaminated, though residents living within a mile of the site don’t use it for drinking water. In 1992 more than 97,000 tons of liquid waste and 60 tons of sludge was removed from the site, according to the EPA. The final cleanup phase, which includes removing contaminated soil from residential property and public spaces, is now underway.

But despite widespread concern among public officials in the 1980s the Wauleco site remains a brownfield; the property never made it to the EPA’s list of Superfund sites. Brownfields are by definition commercial or industrial properties where the expansion or redevelopment is hindered by “real or perceived contamination,” according to the DNR. Generally, the federal government is not involved at brownfields. Rather, state and tribal response programs play a significant role in cleaning up and helping to revitalize these sites, frequently through state voluntary cleanup programs.

In May 1986, amid rising concerns about potential groundwater and food chain contamination from Penta, the Department of Natural Resources gave SNE seven days to commit to groundwater cleanup processes. The EPA was then poised to move in with “emergency action” if cooperation between the DNR and SNE broke down, according to a memo in the archived papers of former U.S. Congressman Dave Obey. At that time, according to handwritten notes in the file, the EPA wanted to send in a team but the DNR was able to work out a plan with the company instead, keeping  control in state and local hands.

“Dioxin is nothing to fool around with,” Obey wrote. “It is one of the most potent chemicals known, something which our Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange can attest to.”

Documents show the DNR in 1989 contacted SNE officials and made them an offer. If SNE signed the state’s consent order, the DNR would handle the site and defer the property from the EPA’s Superfund and national priorities list. Further, DNR officials offered, should the site eventually land on the national priorities list, the DNR would recommend a s tate enforcement lead.

SNE did commit to a cleanup plan and installed an extraction system and the groundwater monitoring wells that still exist today. Test results over the years are mixed; in most cases, the contamination level has gone down. But with a state groundwater quality enforcement standard for Penta at 1 part per billion (ppb), residents say it is jaw-dropping to consider that Penta levels were as high as 9,600 ppb in 1992 in test wells near the Wisconsin River.

The site of the former SNE and Harris-Crestline manufacturing facilities is now fenced in and dotted with extraction wells. (Photo: Wausau Pilot and Review)

Nearly 150,000 gallons of Penta have been removed from the ground since 1991, according to state documents. But the process is far from complete. The most recent annual groundwater monitoring report submitted in August 2016 to the DNR shows that the annual average Penta concentration in the groundwater entering the extraction system remained at 4,377 ppb as recently as late 2015.

DNR officials still consider the conditions at the Wauleco site to be “very challenging,” estimating that as much as 420,000 gallons of “free product” still exists in the subsurface despite ongoing cleanup efforts at the site.

The interest in cleaning up and returning brownfields to productive use has transformed what once was an environmental issue into a major public policy initiative. In Wisconsin, there are an estimated 10,000 brownfields, according to the DNR. These properties present public health, economic, environmental and social challenges to the communities in which they are located.

Along Thomas Street, responsibility for cleanup has been tossed about like a hot potato for decades. Public documents outline discussion after discussion about the problem of Penta in the soil and in the city’s groundwater, much of which passes blame from one organization to another. Though analytical data showed that Penta-affected groundwater originating at the Wauleco site migrated onto 3M’s property, Wisconsin in 1995 did not regulate such waste as hazardous. As a result, the DNR ultimately allowed Wauleco and 3M deal with the Penta as a “non-hazardous” waste, rather than listing it as hazardous in their remediation efforts.

This, the citizens group says, is just one instance of the state’s failure to properly address an issue that continues to have serious ramifications today.

The DNR’s Remediation and Redevelopment program has a wide range of financial and liability tools available to assist local governments, businesses, lenders and others to clean up and redevelop brownfields in Wisconsin. But the areas surrounding brownfield sites are often ignored, despite evidence that chemicals can spread beyond the fences that keep the public away from the cleanup area.

On deaf ears

Such is the case in Wausau where, in January, a group of residents, some of which are now part of the citizen action group, pooled their resources to pay for independent testing on property east of the former SNE site. The tests confirmed the residents’ worst fears, revealing dioxins/furans associated with Penta had indeed migrated through wind and stormwater runoff to areas beyond the SNE property and into the neighborhood.

Today the problem isn’t about Penta itself, but rather the persistent dioxins and furans that remain long after manufacturing ceases and Penta is no longer in use.

Pete Arntsen, a senior hydrogeologist with Sand Creek Consultants, the firm performing the tests, explained that areas east of the former facility are most likely to be an area of accumulation of those substances, considering a predominant wind direction from the west and stormwater drainage to the east.

“In short, the substances were released during the manufacturing process and then migrated east via wind and water,” Arntsen told Wausau Pilot and Review.

After the test results were shared publicly members of the group held their breath, waiting for a sign that someone – anyone – at the city level was taking the threat seriously. But instead, Wausau Mayor Rob Mielke in February publicly called the tests an irresponsible “scare tactic.” And even with tests in hand, council members voted to approve the project. No additional testing or remediation has been performed to date.

“We’re not going to be doing any construction there anyway,” Mielke said in a February WSAU radio interview, referring to the locations where independent soil testing was performed. “I think some of the fears that were put out there, a scare tactic if you will, was unneeded and kind of irresponsible.”

More alarm bells went off when test results surfaced showing that soils beneath a culvert discharging into nearby Riverside Park showed levels of hazardous substances in 2006 that were six times that of the most recent round of testing on nearby property. Those test results were sent to DNR officials in 2008, and DNR officials forwarded the information to the Marathon County Health Department, according to court documents and emails that are all public record. The culvert discharges into the western portion of Riverside Park.

In the ensuing discussion, the DNR declared they could not force city officials to do any additional testing. And the city council brought in a state toxicologist to reassure residents the park is safe for both adults and children, despite the toxic chemicals in the soil. But there is still significant debate over the issue, in part because the DNR claims there is “no evidence” that hazardous substances were released into the neighborhood from the Wauleco site.

Members of the group say they want more testing in Riverside Park. They also want more testing throughout the neighborhood before the Thomas Street project moves forward to ensure that digging up the soil won’t be a risk to public health, because dioxins and furans are most commonly spread by digging and other mechanical processes.

Successes, failures

Communities all across Wisconsin and even nationwide have successfully investigated, cleaned up and redeveloped many of their contaminated properties. Many of these redevelopment projects resulted in uses that make their communities a better place to be. In Wausau, for example, the former site of Marathon Rubber Products Co., in the 500 block of Sherman Street, was transformed through the DNR’s Remediation and Redevelopment Program, a $100,000 grant to conduct investigation and demolition. The city also obtained a $90,000 community development grant and the DNR issued a general liability clarification letter to assist in understanding any potential liabilities associated with the site. Since the cleanup was completed, the property has been redeveloped as a neighborhood park and includes housing for low- to middle-income families.

Elsewhere, even properties where Penta was used for years have been remediated through EPA initiatives. In the Burnett County town of Daniels, Wis., a massive cleanup that excavated and transferred Penta- and arsenic-contaminated soil to a disposal area and created a water-treatment system in a 7-acre fenced-in area finished in October 2000.

But other sites have not been such a success. Like the Wauleco property, the Southern Maryland Wood Treating site operated a wood treatment facility that used Penta regularly, but for only 13 years. The site was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List in June 1986. Ten years and more than $30 million later, remediation there halted, “partially due to community and political pressure,” according to EPA documents.

In Wausau, there has been significant progress made with respect to the actual site itself. But critics say remediation shouldn’t be contained to a fenced-in area. Rather, they say, the damage to the environment is more widespread.

There is significant scientific research that suggests the residents may be onto something. For instance: John Ball, a professor in the civil engineering department at the University of Alabama published a study in 1986 that estimates the horizontal extent of contamination from such substances is about 14 acres. Considering Arntsen’s explanation about migration and the documented fact that Penta-infused water was used to water lawns and gardens throughout the neighborhood for years, contamination likely spread well beyond the fenced-in borders of the Wauleco property.

Lawsuit evidence

There is a wealth of evidence to consider in court records, too. In May 2008, six neighborhood residents sued Wauleco, alleging personal injury and property damage caused by the release of Penta at the SNE/Crestline site. By the time the fourth amended complaint was filed in November 2009, the lawsuit included more than 140 plaintiffs, each of whom had lived in or visited the River Street neighborhood at various times since 1939.

The plaintiffs fell into three groups. One group alleged their exposure to Penta had caused them to develop an array of health problems including Hodgkin’s lymphoma; non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; breast, liver, brain, stomach, and thyroid cancer; diabetes, thyroid disease and neurological problems. Another group alleged Wauleco’s release of Penta had damaged their property.

And a third group, consisting of Amber Alsteen and 69 other plaintiffs, did not allege that they suffered any current health problems but were at an increased risk of developing cancer in the future. The third group, which sought damages for future medical monitoring expenses, saw their lawsuit dismissed on appeal because state law requires an actual injury before a plaintiff can recover damages; the other two groups settled out of court. Surface soil sampling conducted as recently as 2008 showed elevated soil dioxin levels at locations scattered throughout the entire neighborhood. According to court documents, the continued presence of dioxin contamination in surface soil throughout the neighborhood may have peaked in the 1970s, but the threat was far from over. And the continued presence of those dioxins were blamed in court documents on the “failure of SNE and its consultants to investigate the nature and extent” of contamination following their discovery and notification to the DNR in 1984.

At the same time when residents in the neighborhood were alleging cancer and other serious illnesses from contamination in a substantial lawsuit, the city of Wausau pulled more intense environmental studies from the Thomas Street Project, records show. But attorneys for the plaintiffs in 2008 collected numerous soil samples for testing as they worked to make their case.

In all, there were more than 30 cases of cancer outlined in the lawsuit. Six of the claims were from estates, filed on behalf of deceased residents. Wausau Pilot and Review journalists attempted to contact plaintiffs in the case who are still living but were repeatedly told that commenting on the case could jeopardize each plaintiff’s settlement, the terms of which are not public record.

Often, major cleanups only happen thanks to grassroots efforts. In Florida, for example, Gainesville residents complained of their families’ illnesses and deaths for more than 50 years, demanding environmental justice and permanent relocation. Similar to the situation in Wausau, in Gainesville, dioxins were detected in a 2-mile radius surrounding a former wood manufacturing plant. But in Florida, the EPA was involved and the site was declared a Superfund in the 1982.

Even with EPA involvement, the residents’ fight took years. Finally, in 2013, the EPA and Beazer East, the company legally responsible for the contaminated site signed a binding agreement to move the $90 million cleanup ahead, but only after a neighborhood group sued to make it happen.

Last week, angry residents called the Wausau Pilot and Review office to report that a backhoe was digging up dirt in the project area without a precaution Mayor Mielke promised to enforce. There were no water trucks hosing down the dirt, which would have prevented potentially toxic dust and soil from swirling through the neighborhood where residents walk, and children play. Mielke said the activity was due to a subcontractor working to pinpoint a potential location for a bio-filtration pond. Though he agreed to ensure all future activity would include watering, some residents saw the act as just another failure of the city to live up to its promise to protect its citizens.

Further, the citizens group questions the idea of having a potential open pond draining from the Wauleco site, a facet of the project that came to public light only after reading a DNR email contained in an open records request.

“After concerns about the neighborhood contamination have been expressed for years…it shouldn’t take an open records request to learn that a potential open pond in the neighborhood is going to take drainage from the Wauleco site,” Kilian wrote, in a public comment on a previous Wausau Pilot and Review story. “The city not telling residents about this earlier was either uncouth or simply insensitive, from my perspective. The municipal government (with maybe the DNR) and community should have been able to have a productive dialogue on this issue.

City officials have been mixed on the environmental issues presented, including the revelation that soil tests taken in 2008 beneath a culvert in nearby Riverside Park showed dioxin levels exceeded state standards for mutliple dioxan/furans. In one case, for total dioxin PeCDD, the level was more than 14 times the residual contaminant level recommended by the EPA for non-industrial properties.

After the test results were reported in Wausau Pilot and Review, then-Parks Director William Duncanson sent an email to Mielke and several other city officials requesting that city staff work to determine the “presence, extent, and levels of pentachlorophenol related to this pipe that feeds into Riverside Park.” Duncanson, who has since retired, said, “What we have before us is a technical environmental issue impacting city park property, not a policy or political issue.” But Duncanson’s request was never heeded. Instead, after calling in state toxicologists who calculated the risk to individual visits the park near the culvert outfall three times per week, 35 weeks per year, city officials ultimately decided no further testing was required, and declared the park safe for both children and adults.

Members of Citizens for a Clean Wausau say that much like the residents in Gainesville, they won’t rest until their concerns are finally heard. Already, the group uncovered allegations that 3M Co., adjacent to the River Street neighborhood, violated state air pollution control laws at the company’s Wausau site, allegations that prompted a new, ongoing effort to monitor pollution in the area.

So far, they’re taking a proactive stance on the air pollution issue and have installed the first of what they hope will be several air monitoring stations in the neighborhood. The PurpleAir air quality monitoring system uses laser particle counters to provide real-time measurement of dust concentrations. The measurements are reported to the PurpleAir map via Wifi.

The group will set up a GoFundMe to fund future monitors, which cost about $250 each, to be placed as close as possible to the 3M plant. Meanwhile, officials at 3M say they are actively working to limit pollution and better coexist with residents in the neighborhood by reaching out to members of the group to discuss their ongoing concerns.

While the city is not to blame for creating the toxic hazards that exist in the neighborhood, members of the group say officials do have an obligation to ensure the safety of residents and be more transparent in the process.

“Citizens for a Clean Wausau would also like to see, and will push for, more transparency from city government on historical and current contamination,” the group stated. “This would include much stronger efforts from City Hall to inform the public about past and present environmental impacts on the soil, air, and water around the Thomas Street region, and the Wausau area as a whole.”

Top photo: 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

Editor’s note: 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.