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Penta wastewater contamination detected in Thomas Street neighborhood

in Investigations/News

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — After a contentious meeting Thursday that included new revelations of wastewater contamination on the city’s west side, members of Wausau’s capital improvements and street maintenance committee rejected a request for an easement to bury utility lines along the proposed Thomas Street project corridor.

According to city documents, Wausau Water Works on Jan. 8 conducted “grab” samples at sewer mains at several points to have a better understanding of the Pentachlorophenol levels coming in to the city’s wastewater plant.  The grab samples were obtained by lowering a container mounted on a pole into the wastewater stream and scooping up a sample of wastewater, according to city documents. A Jan. 21 report shows the presence of Pentachlorophenol, or Penta, in four of six manholes dotting the neighborhood where residents have repeatedly expressed concerns over potential toxicity of the soil and groundwater.

Dave Erickson, wastewater superintendent at Wausau Water Works, said the test results have been submitted to the state Dept. of Natural Resources for further review.

Penta, a highly toxic carcinogen, was once one of the most widely used biocides in the U.S. but it is now a restricted use pesticide and is no longer available to the general public. The chemical was regularly used for decades in wood treatment processes at former manufacturing facilities where a major road reconstruction project is planned to launch this spring.

Committee members on Thursday considered providing Wisconsin Public Service with a 12-foot wide easement at 1300 Cleveland Ave. to bury electrical lines in preparation for the project. But several members of the grassroots environmental group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, spoke out at Thursday’s meeting against the easement because no Phase II environmental testing has yet been performed at the site.

The DNR on Jan. 15 issued a request for information about past burning practices to WAULCEO, 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. Members of the citizens group are requesting a future agenda item be scheduled to ensure there is no digging until the area is deemed safe by state officials, who are investigating potential soil contamination there, based on future soil sample results and state administrative code standards.

Council President Lisa Rasmussen, who is a member of the CISM committee that met Thursday, said the investigation into past burning practices and the easement debate are two separate things. Rasmussen moved to approve the easement with the caveat that WPS be required to directionally drill the line to avoid trenching. That, Rasmussen said, was intended as an offer to compromise and alleviate the residents’ concerns.

“There should be no concern of stirring up pollutants in those situations,” Rasmussen said, in an email to Wausau Pilot and Review. “I was surprised that given the requirement that the installation not include open trenching, that the item did not pass.”

But critics say the issues could very well intersect. Environmental concerns in the neighborhood stretch back for decades. In the 1980s a “pool” of contaminated Penta was found floating on the groundwater under the plant. Consequently, SNE in 1985 installed 20 groundwater monitoring wells in the area, with seven more installed in 1986 as part of a cleanup plan with the DNR.

The city for years has allowed WAULECO to discharge its wastewater into the sanitary sewer, which extends through Riverside Park along the Thomas Street corridor and along the Wisconsin River before reaching the city’s wastewater treatment plant, and in 1991 requested an insurance policy from Sentry Insurance, WAULECO’s parent company, for doing so, according to city documents.

January’s test results are not the first instance of Penta contamination in manhole samples. In the mid-1990s, WAULECO collaborated with city officials to resolve contamination by installing seals in “wet zones” at sewer joint. It is not yet known if current Penta WAULECO contamination in neighborhood manholes stems from a similar problem.

According to state documents, nearly 150,000 gallons of Penta have been removed from the ground since 1991. Despite several decades of groundwater treatment, state documents show that, as recently as 2016, DNR officials considered the conditions at the Wauleco site to be “very challenging,” estimating that as much as 420,000 gallons of “free product” still existed in the subsurface.

Notably, residents and a member of Citizens for a Clean Wausau previously advised the DNR that there may be discrepancies or data gaps in the earlier utility corridor study performed by WAULECO’s former consultant: Keystone Environmental Resources. Keystone had at one time been a wholly owned subsidiary of Koppers — a chemical company that actually manufactured the pentachlorophenol used at the former SNE/Crestline plant, and which WAULECO is currently cleaning up.

Scientists say Penta is toxic to humans from acute, short-term ingestion and from inhalation exposure. Acute inhalation exposures in humans have resulted in neurological, blood, and liver effects, and eye irritation. Chronic (long-term) exposure by inhalation in humans can impact the respiratory tract, blood, kidney, liver, immune system, eyes, nose and skin, according to the EPA.

CISM committee members Gary Gisselman, Mary Thao, and Becky McElhaney voted against the proposed easement, while Lisa Rasmussen, who is also council president, offered the sole “yes” vote. Committee member Karen Kellbach was not at the meeting.

Rasmussen said she wanted to avoid the committee to focus on CISM’s job, which is to manage infrastructure and capital projects.

“If the request last night was to place housing there, dig up the site or the like, I would have been fighting too,” Rasmussen said. “But, there are times we have to discern where issues may be interrelated and what can be done safely in spite of that.”

The full city council could override the committee’s recommendation, however, and choose to move the easement forward.

Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman said if the council doesn’t approve the easement, WPS will bury their line in another location nearby.

“The Thomas Street project is on schedule and continues to move forward,” Lindman said, in an email to Wausau Pilot and Review.

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