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DNR investigating potential soil contamination at Wausau manufacturing site

in Investigations/News

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from DNR Hydrogeologist Matt Thompson.

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU —The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is investigating potential soil contamination by a former Wausau wood manufacturer amid allegations the company and its employees improperly burned tens of thousands of tons of wood waste at what is now a brownfield site on the city’s west side.

The DNR on Jan. 15 issued a request for information about past burning practices to Wauleco, Inc., which now owns the property at 125 E. Rosecrans St. in Wausau. The property was formerly occupied by window and door manufacturer Harris-Crestline, which in 1982 merged with SNE Corp. Sentry, in Stevens Point, is the parent company of Wauleco.

In addition to information about wood waste burning, state officials are asking Wauleco representatives to prepare a work plan to address “aerial deposition of contaminants” associated with waste burned at the facility, according to DNR documents.

The state’s request comes three months after a Wausau Pilot and Review report on the environmental history of the site. The Pilot report was based on numerous documents obtained by the grassroots group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, whose members have spend hundreds of hours gathering historical data on manufacturing activities at current and former manufacturing businesses lining the Thomas Street corridor.

“Information provided by the group and [Wausau Pilot and Review] provided the department with new details about site activities that allowed us to request a scope of work for additional site investigation activities to take place,” said Matt Thompson, a hydrogeologist with the DNR who issued the letter to Wauleco. “The program I work in, Remediation and Redevelopment, will collaborate with other department programs to make sure the investigation is planned appropriately and takes into consideration possible effects from the burning activities that took place at the site in the past.”

One member of the group, Dr. Jerrold Buerer, said Wednesday he is pleased that state officials are listening to citizen input and are taking local concerns and documentation seriously.

Documents obtained by the citizens group show the property first attracted the attention of the Department of Natural Resources in 1972 when the state issued a special order to then-owner Crestline relating to air pollution at the facility. Past media reports, unearthed by the local environmental group, revealed that the company was burning as much as 400 tons of wood waste and sawdust — containing processed residue — each month at the site. That figure is specifically noted in this week’s letter to Wauleco.

In addition to on-site burning, the DNR also alleges in its letter that employees of the company operating at the site were allowed to “take wood scraps home and burn them.” Burning such materials is subject to strict regulations because pollutants can be emitted in the burning process, creating a potential additional health risk, according to the DNR.

The documents that formed the basis of the Oct. 30 Wausau Pilot report detail a long history of such practices, actions that went unchecked for more than a decade.

Among the findings: In 1972, the DNR ordered the company to conform to solid waste disposal standards and threatened to fine the company anywhere from $10 to $5,000 per day if the burning continued. But a June 28, 2012 deposition given by Bob Zastrow, a former longtime maintenance supervisor at SNE, showed the company failed to comply with the DNR’s orders; burning continued until at least 1984, apparently without penalty.

That information prompted current DNR officials to issue the letter seeking information on the “type and quantity of waste generated transported, treated or stored which was disposed of at the site” and the dates of those activities. State officials are also seeking the identity of both the people and parent company of those responsible for that activity.

The burning activity “may have resulted in an uninvestigated soil contamination,” the letter states. See the full letter, embedded below.

The letter appears to show a shift in the DNR’s focus, expanding the investigation to pollutants released into the air that could have settled in the surrounding neighborhood. To date, the Wauleco site investigation and health assessment activities have focused on soil and groundwater contamination connected to Penta solution spills. Airborne pollutants are carried by wind patterns away from their place of origin.

Penta, now a known carcinogen, was used for decades in wood manufacturing processes at the site and was central to a 2008 class action lawsuit filed by 144 people who claimed toxicity in the soil and groundwater that migrated from the site caused cancer and other health problems.

Citizens for a Clean Wausau responded Wednesday to news of the letter with cautious optimism.

“Citizens for a Clean Wausau applauds the DNR’s requirement for WAULECO to submit a work plan to investigate contamination as a result of burning waste at the former window manufacturing operation on that site,” the group wrote, in a prepared statement to Wausau Pilot and Review. “Our group will remain vigilant, and will ultimately support nothing less than a thorough work plan from WAULECO with equally comprehensive off-site testing to follow.”

It is unclear if the DNR will require Wauleco to conduct testing of soils along the Thomas Street reconstruction route and the potential impact on the project, which is planned for this spring. The plan has been hotly contested by some residents and members of the group, who have repeatedly expressed concerns about the potential safety issues posed by disturbing the soil.

Matt Thompson of the DNR said his department believes that once an air model has been developed, the agency will have a better idea of the ideal locations from which to take shallow soil samples, whether that is onsite or off.

“Regarding the Thomas Street project, no new information has been provided that would change the department’s determination that impacted soil should be managed appropriately and that best practices to minimize dust should be followed,” Thompson said. “If new data is presented, the Remediation and Redevelopment program with work with Waste and Materials Management program to determine is the department’s original assessment is still appropriate.”

Members of Citizens for a Clean Wausau say they will continue to monitor developments as they unfold.

“After the City was repeatedly told that massive burning had occurred on that site, and that burning is often associated with dioxins, I’m pleased that the DNR now has the data and is requiring a soil investigation,” said Citizens for a Clean Wausau member Terry Kilian. “We are not going to give up.”

Attempts to reach Wauleco representatives were unsuccessful.

Wauleco has 60 days to respond to the DNR’s requests.

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