By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee have recommended an environmental assessment for the site of a former wood manufacturing facility along Wausau’s Thomas Street corridor after residents voiced concerns about potential contamination in the area.

A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment, commonly referred to as an ESA, or Phase I ESA, is completed to research the current and historical uses of a property as part of a commercial real estate transaction. The report assesses whether current or historical property uses have impacted the soil or groundwater beneath the property and could pose a threat to the environment and/or human health. If these issues are found, it presents a potential liability for the lender or owner, as well as affecting the value of the property.

For decades, the property at 1300 Cleveland Ave. and 131 W. Thomas St., operated as Connor Forest Industries. Later, the property would become the site of the city’s business incubator, which is now being torn down. To date, no environmental testing or remediation have been performed at the property.

On Nov. 13, the City Council approved a zoning change for the property from industrial to residential. That zoning change, coupled with a request by Economic Development Director Chris Schock to issue a request for proposals to redevelop the site, is raising alarm bells for some residents and members of the grassroots group Citizens for a Clean Wausau.

Tom Kilian, a member of the group and a Thomas Street resident, urged the committee to order, at a minimum, Phase I testing before any redevelopment of the land is considered. Wausau Pilot and Review spent months documenting the issues surrounding the property, which was purchased by the city in 1986.

Initially, the Department of Natural Resources could not locate any information about potential environmental issues at the site. Months later, DNR officials eventually located a two-foot stack of files related to Connor Forest Industries.

Among the findings: In September 1985, the DNR launched a probe into illegally buried hazardous waste at the site that sprang from the discovery of barrels buried at the company’s Laona location. At that time, the DNR sent three representatives to secretly watch activities at the Wausau location.

Later, the DNR would estimate that more than 91,000 gallons of waste had been illegally dumped at the property over four years.

The Connor Forest Industries site, pictured in this 1974 Geographic Information Systems public photo.

According to a November 1985 Green Bay Gazette news story, “barrels were unearthed between June (1985) and September at seven separate sites, including a shallow pit behind the Connor Forest Industries flooring mill in Laona and the firm’s Wausau mill.” The matter was eventually referred to the Department of Justice because of illegal disposal of hazardous and solid waste, according to media reports, and the company was fined.

Public documents from 1986 connected to the city’s purchase of the property show city officials were concerned about potential liabilities linked to contamination from chemical contaminants that could impact soils and groundwater. Some of the contamination of concern was across the street on the SNE property, including dioxins, documents show.

As part of the purchase agreement, both CFI and SNE agreed to indemnify and hold the city harmless from all liabilities incurred by the purchase. In return, the city agreed to promptly notify SNE of any monitoring or requested or required remedial action resulting from contamination, including dioxins and furans. But in order for SNE’s parent company, Wauleco, to be held liable, officials would have to prove that the contamination is directly related to the company’s past operations.

Dioxins and furans are common names for toxic chemicals that have been associated with a wide range of adverse health effects.

Council President Lisa Rasmussen agreed with Kilian’s recommendation to undergo Phase One environmental testing before any RFP is issued by the city.

“The committee decided that they want to know more about the environmental history and current conditions on the site, in the event we want to restrict what the site can be used for before any proposals are even sought,” Rassmusen said. “As an example, if we learn the site has environmental issues that are not suitable for residential uses, then we would not even consider or request proposals for any such use.”

Rasmussen said the knowledge could save time and effort for the city and for proposers, rather than leaving uses wide open only to later discover the site is challenged.

“Obviously, some residents have concerns about existing locations near there that they fear have issues brought on by decades of coexistence near private sector industrial operations, so our goal would certainly not be to create more of those issues or fears,” Rasmussen said. “So, knowing what the site’s status and history are will help us discern what we want to do with the site. If it is useful for something without significant risk, then the committee would consider proposals for those uses. If there are issues that prevent certain uses, we want to know that now.”

Schock disagreed with Rasmussen, arguing that the city does not need to seek testing until or unless residential proposals come in, since such testing would not necessarily be needed for industrial development.

The economic development committee, however, ultimately directed city staff members to gather more information, including a possible Phase I screening of the site, before any further decisions are made.

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.