By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — In a letter shared Tuesday with the city council, a Harvard-trained toxicologist who has participated in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup activities for more than 20 years is calling a state analysis of toxic soil in Wausau’s Riverside Park “inadequate and incomplete” because the report failed to take into consideration potential cancer risks associated with dioxin.

Stephen Lester, who is now the director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, said it is “completely mystifying” how the state Department of Health Services could assess and evaluate public health risk without including the potential cancer risk. At the request of the local citizens group, Lester, who has extensive dioxin experience and has served on a range of scientific advisory and peer review committees including the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, reviewed the state’s Aug. 20 report and shared his opinion in a letter to Citizens for a Clean Wausau this month.

That letter was shared with council members and read, in three minute increments, during the public comments portion of Tuesday’s city council meeting. Tom Kilian, a member of the local environmental group, had requested Mayor Robert Mielke add the environmental issue to the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting, a request Mielke flatly denied. Instead, Mielke requested Kilian speak during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting but limit his comments to three minutes. To accommodate the mayor’s time restriction, members of the group took turns reading the information in Lester’s letter and distributed a packet of information to each council member.

In the letter, Lester blasts the Aug. 20 DHS analysis, which concluded that there is “no apparent health hazard for people using the Riverside Park and residents living in the Thomas Street neighborhood” due to soil contamination.

“I could not disagree more with this conclusion,” Lester wrote, in a letter read publicly in three-minute increments by members of the grassroots environmental group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau.

The DHS risk analysis was based only on the non-cancer risks posed by exposure to dioxin. But according to Lester, the risk of developing cancer is the most dominant and important risk posed by exposure to dioxin.

Notably, the DNR does assess cancer risk in their own assessments. Numerous samples, including those on River Street, Emter Street, in Riverside Park, and on Thomas Street at the Wauleco site exceed the DNR’s acceptable cancer risk. But the DHS presentation did not appear to use those same metrics.

“No risk assessment of dioxin exposure would be complete without it,” Lester said. “It is completely mystifying to me how the state DHS could assess and evaluate the public health risks posed by dioxin levels in soil without including the potential cancer risk.”

The cancer aspect is crucial because dioxin is generally considered the most potent man-made carcinogen ever tested, Lester wrote. Further, Lester wrote, the levels of dioxin found in five of 16 samples taken from the neighborhood soil exceeded EPA screening levels for dioxin in soil – and levels used to clean up a federal Superfund site. Superfund sites represent some of the nation’s most contaminated land, and no residential area should be built on soil containing more dioxin than a federal Superfund site, especially for such a toxic chemical as dioxin, Lester wrote.

After the public presentation of the DHS report, the city declared the area safe and has routinely resisted the group’s repeated requests for additional testing. But Lester pointed out that soil sampling in the neighborhood has been limited to four separate sampling efforts, one of which was paid for by local residents.

Scientists can and do disagree about what the numbers mean. But Lester said there can be “no doubt that the concentrations of dioxin found in the soil raise a red flag of concern and require further action and evaluation.”

“The reason screen levels are set is to identify levels of concern that require follow-up,” Lester wrote. “In this case, the WI DHS should conduct additional testing in the Thomas Street neighborhood that will accurately define the extent of dioxin contamination in this area.”

At the conclusion of the reading, Rita Pagel, a member of the citizens group, acknowledged the council for the tough job they have as city representatives but urged them to reverse a decades-long trend by previous councils of “selling the city’s soul” to corporate interests and failing to act in the residents’ best interest.

Pagel addressed David Nutting in particular, who represents the district most impacted by the environmental issue.

“Are you going to stand with your constituents?” Pagel asked, addressing Nutting. “Please step up and do what is right for the city.”

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.SL_CCW_Packet_Full_11.13.18 – Digital