By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — Despite repeated promises to hear citizen concerns about environmental safety, Wausau Mayor Robert Mielke is refusing a group’s request to place newly discovered information on the agenda for Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Members of the grassroots environmental group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, first approached the parks and recreation committee on Monday, Nov. 5, with evidence of possible contamination in Riverside Park due to documented petroleum spills from nearby 3M.
According to public documents obtained by the group, the spill, which impacted the right-of-way in Riverside Park, resulted in a number of restrictions on construction and excavation activity. The issue, which city leaders were notified about in a July 22, 2013 letter from 3M, is potentially significant given plans to expand the River Edge Trail along the western riverfront area, according to the group.
Under the terms of state environmental protection laws, any future excavation at Riverside Park involving soils deeper than 7.5 feet require specific management practices and cooperation with both 3M and the Department of Natural Resources. Excavation of the contaminated soil “may pose an inhalation or other direct contact hazard and as a result special precautions may need to be taken during excavation activities to prevent a health threat to humans,” the documents state.
The group also uncovered and presented documentation that shows toxic waste containing dioxins had been routinely stored in the 1980s by the former SNE facility in drums on the western border of Riverside Park, after multiple storage and disposal facilities refused to accept the contents. The former cold-storage building has since been demolished, but 1974 aerial photos show the building in close relation to the park and culvert, where tests performed in 2006 revealed high levels of dioxins in the soil.
At Monday’s meeting, the group requested this and other new information be agendized for next week’s full council meeting so all city representatives would have access to what they believe is critical information about the safety of residents in the area. But Mielke, who sets the agenda for council meetings, has so far refused.
Instead, Mielke is suggesting the group address the council during the public comment period and is cautioning them to keep their presentation under three minutes.
Tom Kilian, a founding member of the citizens group, said this is yet another example in which residents are forced out of the conversation about the safety of their own community.
“Logically, it is difficult to have citizen-driven government without citizens or their input involved,” Kilian said.
Public documents show city officials have been dubious of the group’s concerns for months. In one instance, Public Works Director Eric Lindman in October 2017 emailed both DNR officials and Wauleco’s consultants, notifying them that residents had hired an outside attorney to secure additional testing in the area. In the email, Lindman called the group’s efforts “really another ploy to stop or delay the project.” Wauleco now owns the property identified in state and court documents as a central source of much of the contamination throughout the neighborhood.
“I was disappointed to see the dismissive and inappropriate manner in which a City employee wrote about residents’ environmental concerns and efforts here,” Kilian wrote. “This does not inspire confidence or trust in the process, or in the people who participate in such behavior.”
Mielke shared an email with Wausau Pilot and Review in which he called Kilian’s request, made more than a week in advance of the meeting, “last minute.”
“From my perspective, coming to a city council meeting and trying to present your information at that time without showing anyone from either the city or the council ahead of time that information, is not the way to go about it and would be unproductive,” Mielke wrote. “For the record, there has always been productive cooperation between us and has always been done in a good faith type of way with myself, all city staff and yourself…. that has always been shown to you and the residents in that area…. how you are proposing this discussion, is not the way to do it.”
But Kilian said the mayor has had plenty of time and should follow rules regarding council information packets uniformly. Historically, materials have been added to council packets even hours before a meeting takes place.
“It is unfortunate there could be no productive cooperation between residents involved and the City on this issue, although I am not making the assumption that other council members share the sentiments or position of those on this string,” Kilian said. “I imagine that there are other members of the council who would not only have welcomed an information presentation with appropriate time and interaction, but who would have appreciated this effort from folks in our town.”