By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — Ten years before state toxicologists declared Riverside Park safe for public use, a separate Department of Health Services official recommended further testing for areas adjacent to a west-side brownfield site that likely would have included park and residential properties nearby.

Yet that information, obtained though an open records request of Department of Natural Resources documents, was never communicated to members of the city council, despite being shared with Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman.

Records show Lindman was advised of the recommendation in a March 27, 2018 email from the DNR. But Lindman omitted that information in his April 20, 2018 memo to Mayor Rob Mielke and members of the city’s Capital Improvements and Street Maintenance Committee that outlined the history of soil testing in the neighborhood and a summary of information received from the DNR.

The memo was distributed the same day Mayor Rob Mielke addressed disclosure and transparency regarding Thomas Street environmental matters, and three weeks before the council approved the relocation plat for the Phase II of the Thomas Street Project.

Wausau Mayor Robert Mielke

In an email to Wausau Pilot and Review, Lindman acknowledged he did not share the information but noted that the toxicologist’s 2008 recommendation, which was based in test results from 2006, was never pursued by the DNR.

“…This was a recommendation to the (DNR) to consider and they determined not to pursue or have SNE Wauleco perform any additional testing since dioxin testing in the area was already completed,” Lindman wrote. “As the city has stated all along, we need to rely on the (DNR) to review information and make recommendations to responsible entities of any additional testing or environmental work. In this case the (DNR) did not request any additional testing in 2008 or this past spring based on the information brought forward.”

Still, Lindman asserts that the information he shared with council members was complete — despite the omission.

“The memo that you refer to summarizes the information I received as well as my conversations with the regulatory agencies regarding the information you have discussed,” he wrote.

In early 2018, when news first surfaced that test results beneath a culvert in Riverside Park revealed dioxin levels that exceeded recommended levels, then-Parks Director Bill Duncanson urged city officials to explore further testing on the property. But, according to an email issued to the DHS by Dist. 1 Council Member Pat Pekahm and obtained in an open records request, Lindman was “not so sure the dioxin levels on park property (were) high enough to warrant further attention and expense.”

Photo of culvert discharging into Riverside Park, taken March 17, 2018. Credit: Shereen Siewert/Wausau Pilot and Review

The state is now investigating potential soil contamination in and around the Wauleco site based on information provided by the grassroots environmental group Citizens for a Clean Wausau and reported in Wausau Pilot and Review. That investigation officially began Jan. 15, when the DNR issued a notice to Wauleco seeking information on past burning practices on 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 move appears to mark a shift in the DNR’s strategy, 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.

Representatives from the citizens group say they are frustrated that a city official ignored solid information that could have been pivotal in the council’s decision-making process.

“Citizens for a Clean Wausau would find any omission of key information from public and city council review to be concerning and serious,” group members wrote, in a prepared statement. “A citizen’s trust in government hinges on full transparency at all levels, and that will continue to be our expectation and requirement.”

District 1 Alderman Pat Peckham

Alderman Peckham, who chairs the Parks and Recreation Committee, said he does not recall ever seeing a recommendation from the DNR for further testing either in Riverside Park or the Thomas Street corridor.

“I have, in fact, tried to get some sort of opinion or guidance from the DNR as to the need the agency sees for further testing, but it appears the agency does not want to weigh in,” Peckham said. “A month or so ago, DNR hydrologist Matt Thompson told me that I was asking the agency to serve as the city’s environmental consultant. They could not do that, he said, and such a function would have to be filled by a private, independent firm. On the Riverside Park side of this, that’s what we’re currently looking into.”

Ten months after the Riverside Park issue first surfaced, members of the Parks and Recreation committee took action when they voted to move forward with a Phase I environmental assessment of the southwest corner of the public park. The committee initially anticipated a Feb. 4 discussion on the issue but the assessment won’t be ready in time for next week’s meeting, Peckham said. Now, the topic is slated for discussion March 11.

The public meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. and will be held in council chambers at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau.

Peckham said a representative of the county health department, a DHS representative and a DNR hydrologist will likely attend the meeting, which could result in a recommendation to hire an environmental consultant to advise on possible soil testing.

“Another possible result, of course, would be a decision that the level of concern does not warrant further testing, Peckham said.

City Council Member Mary Thao said she has asked the CISM committee to add the topic as a future agenda item so the citizens group can formally present its findings.