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DHS, DNR: Citizen’s group input crucial to Riverside Park recommendations

in Investigations/News

WAUSAU PILOT AND REVIEW

WAUSAU, Wis. — A recommendation from the state Department of Health Services for environmental testing in Riverside Park is a direct result of information received from a grassroots environmental group in Wausau, officials said Monday.

Citizens for a Clean Wausau is being honored this week by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council for their efforts to protect the state’s tradition of open government. Those efforts were highlighted Monday during two Wausau meetings in which both the DHS and the Department of Natural Resources noted the group’s documentation as playing a crucial role in investigating environmental impacts in both Riverside Park and the Thomas Street neighborhood.

During Monday’s parks and recreation committee meeting, Clara Jeong, a DHS toxicologist, said her department is recommending additional testing in Riverside Park in light of documentation about past burning practices at a former wood manufacturing facility, SNE. The documentation was provided by the citizen’s group.

SNE is a former wood manufacturing business that operated adjacent to the park for decades; the property is now owned by Wauleco, Inc., a subsidiary of Sentry. Jeong said her initial assessment, released last year, did not take into account potential surface soil contamination that could have resulted from burning wood treated with Penta, a known carcinogen that was widely used by the company.

Also during the meeting, Matt Thompson, a hydrogeologist with the DNR, said his attention was piqued while listening to a November radio interview by Wausau Pilot and Review editor Shereen Siewert on WXCO. During the interview, Siewert discussed documents that revealed the DNR in 1972 issued a special order to then-owner Crestline relating to air pollution at the facility. Siewert referred to media reports from the 1970s that revealed that the company was burning 400 tons of wood waste and sawdust containing processed residue monthly at the site. Further, a 2012 deposition given by a former longtime maintenance supervisor at SNE showed the burning continued unchecked until at least 1984, even after the DNR threatened to fine the company.

That information, presented in the radio interview, was researched and provided by members of Citizens for a Clean Wausau.

Thompson told the committee that Siewert’s interview prompted him to investigate further. Ultimately, the DNR on Jan. 15 issued a request for information about past burning practices to Wauleco. 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.

State officials are also asking Wauleco representatives to prepare a work plan to address “aerial deposition of contaminants” associated with waste burned at the facility, Thompson said.

Several members of the citizens group spoke Monday to the committee, urging them to “do the right thing” and hold off on any projects in and around Riverside Park until the DNR has an opportunity to review Wauleco’s response to their request, which is expected to include plans for an air model that will direct future testing for areas in and around the former SNE plant.

In January, members of the committee voted to examine the possibility of environmental testing for Wausau’s Riverside Park, amid continued concerns from residents about the safety of the area.

Pat Peckham, chair of the committee, told fellow members during the January meeting he wasn’t personally convinced that health risks in the park exist. But a report by environmental consultants REI, issued last week, also recommends additional testing in the park. REI was contracted by the city to complete a Phase I environmental study, but only a preliminary report has so far been completed.

REI is waiting for additional information from the DNR before completing the Phase I study.

The DNR expects to have a response from Wauleco by the end of the week detailing a work plan to address aerial disposition of chemicals to the area. Wauleco’s response, when received, will become public record and will be available on the DNR’s website by early next week.

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