By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — City leaders will seek additional information about potential environmental challenges that could exist at the former site of Connor Forest Industries before issuing a request for redevelopment proposals.

Official discussion began Nov. 13 when 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, raised alarm bells for some residents and members of the grassroots group Citizens for a Clean Wausau.

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.

In December, members of the economic development committee were presented with a plan to issue a request for proposals to redevelop the property for future use. But after hearing concerns from residents, the committee ultimately recommended a Phase I assessment be completed for the property, which the city acquired in 1986. A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment, commonly referred to as an ESA, is a study that researches 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.

Last week the committee met again. This time, Schock introduced a Phase I environmental study completed in 2014, a document that had not been brought forward in the previous discussion, and again asked the committee to recommend releasing an RFP for development. The study was spearheaded by Matthew H. Rahn, a senior environmental scientist formerly employed by REI Engineering of Wausau. Rahn is now employed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Though Rahn is no longer employed by the engineering group, an REI representative attended the meeting to ask questions about the report, which relied on a number of factors including a review of Marathon County land records, documents obtained by the WDNR BRRTS website and interviews with former Wausau Economic Development Manager Megan Lawrence.

But both public officials and a representative of Citizens for a Clean Wausau pointed out that the 2014 report could not be considered complete because hundreds of pages of additional documentation about the environmental history of the site were not publicly available at the time the report was compiled. Tom Kilian, a representative of the citizens group, said he did not take issue with the quality of the report but pointed out several examples of issues that were not available to REI in their research four years ago.

Members of the citizens’ group conducted massive research over the past year that included uncovering reams of documents that were never entered into the BRRTS website. When the group’s research began in 2018, DNR officials were initially unable to locate any information about potential environmental issues at the site, Kilian told the committee. Months later, DNR officials eventually located a two-foot stack of files related to Connor Forest Industries, some of which revealed potentially explosive information.

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.

Those facts, the REI representative acknowledged, were not included in the Phase I assessment.

City Council President Lisa Rasmussen noted that because the city owns the site, officials should take every step available to ensure the property is safe for any and all uses before selling what could be a “potential health hazard.”

“If, someday, there would be houses on it, it must be safe for those residents,” Rasmussen said.

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.

Members of the committee ultimately decided that more information is necessary before moving forward with issuing a request for proposals for the site.

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.