By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — Members of the city’s parks and recreation committee on Monday voted to move forward with environmental testing for Wausau’s Riverside Park, amid continued concerns from residents about the safety of the area.

City Public Works Director Eric Lindman will prepare a request for a proposals seeking an environmental consultant who will determine the scope and nature of the testing required.

Pat Peckham, chair of the committee, told fellow members Monday he isn’t personally convinced there are health risks in the park but recognizes that additional testing is something residents want to satisfy their concerns.

The controversy erupted nearly a year ago when test results revealed high levels of dioxins in the soil beneath a culvert emptying into Riverside Park. The culvert neighbors an area that once housed a cold storage building at the former SNE plant. One area of the cold storage building was used as a “drum accumulation area” for hazardous waste, which was later moved to the main Wauleco facility.

The land next to the park, a portion of which is now owned by Wauleco, has been subject to decades of remediation efforts to remove toxic substances from the soil arising from the use of pentachlorophenol, or Penta, a potent pesticide used in wood manufacturing at SNE. Repeatedly, residents have expressed concern that digging up the soil for a planned road reconstruction project along Thomas Street could be a risk to public health.

Two state toxicologists studied the tests, which were performed more than a decade ago, and declared the park safe. But their report did not satisfy residents and drew sharp criticism from Stephen Lester, a nationally-recognized toxicology expert and former EPA official who openly questioned why the toxicologists’ report failed to account for cancer risk and did not use the highest test result available.

Peckham said the choice to use the second-highest test result was based on the idea that the higher test was performed in an area that is now fenced off to the public. But critics say the area in question wasn’t always fenced off — and is in a spot where runoff could have occurred into the park.

Peckham also noted that the toxicologists from Wisconsin are preparing a response to Lester’s criticism that will include an explanation of why cancer risk was not included in the report. That information is expected in the coming weeks.

Committee members Dennis Smith, Tom Neal and Gary Gisselman all spoke strongly in favor of further testing in the park. Both Smith and Neal said testing shouldn’t be limited solely to the culvert area.

If known carcinogens are found, Smith said, there should be an effort to determine who is responsible for the pollution and the cost of any necessary cleanup.

Mayor Rob Mielke, despite past vocal opposition to further testing in the area, said he is open to hiring a consultant and determining next steps.

“The thing is, what is there?” Mielke said. “The city isn’t trying to hide anything and I think that’s been more than shown. This is an area we aren’t working in or digging in. The city is open minded. And we always have been. But at what point, when is it going to e enough to satisfy these people?”

Neal reminded committee members that future planning is in the works to expand Riverside Trail through the park, which would require digging and could be impacted by the condition of the soil.

Peckham suggested the city’s environmental engineer gather documents related to the park and its environmental history. But Gisselman said, “We need more than a synopsis.”

“That property goes back to a variety of wood manufacturing (operations), and we’re not sure what’s in the files,” Gisselman said. “We need to gather that information and some historical information. We heard enough this evening that we need some kind of testing. That’s sort of a consensus. I think we need to move beyond that and set our goals specifically on what kind of testing we need to do there so residents are completely confident in that park.”

Lindman told committee members that some documentation might not be readily available in city files, but part of private operations or in the hands of the DNR. He suggested that a third-party consultant would provide a level of separation between the city and the recommendations, something that could help satisfy critics.

The committee voted unanimously to move forward. Lindman said he would release an RFP for consulting services before the committee’s Feb. 4 meeting.