By Shereen Siewert
Despite repeated assurances from city officials that no environmental hazards are associated with the ongoing Thomas Street road construction project, residents living along the corridor captured images this week of a hose discharging dewatering liquid directly in the Wisconsin River from an excavated area in the project zone.
In the images, a pool of muck can be seen directly below the discharge.
City officials were unaware of the improper discharge until a member of Citizens for a Clean Wausau member brought the images, including photos and videos, to their attention. State Department of Natural Resources officials were also notified of the discovery, prompting a directive to crews to cease all dewatering at the construction site and provide an explanation of how long the dumping was occurring.
The DNR also requested confirmation that no additional dewatering into the river was occurring.
City officials initially responded by saying that a crew member stretched out a hose Monday and placed it under a fence over the wall while pumping out a low spot in the street. The problem, officials said initially, was immediately corrected and lasted for two hours or less and was isolated to Monday. The city inspector informed the crews that this type of discharge could not occur again.
But because the images were taken on Tuesday, the public works director noted in his email to the DNR that the citizen “took the pictures yesterday, if this is the case, then it seems that there was water being discharged yesterday; so at some point one of the workers must have reconnected the pipe but we do not know for how long yesterday.”
Additional video captured on Tuesday suggested that the same hose was still attached to an actively running pump and discharging into the river that day. See the full video, below.
DNR officials are investigating the matter.
Residents and environmental activists have for years expressed concern over the project and its potential health impacts from excavation of contaminated soil in the area. Independent soil testing along the corridor confirmed the presence of dioxin in the soil, but those tests were not enough to deter city officials from moving forward with the project.
Mayor Robert Mielke, during a February 2018 radio interview on WSAU dismissed the residents’ concerns, calling them “a scare tactic” that was “unneeded and kind of irresponsible.” Mielke has repeatedly assured concerned residents that the project would be handled “properly” with all precautions taken.
Penta and other chemicals widely used in wood manufacturing processes at manufacturing facilities along the corridor were for years manufactured by Koppers, a company that is now associated with nine EPA Superfund sites nationwide. Widespread use of Penta for decades resulted in persistent dioxins and furans that remain in the soil, according to statements made to Wausau Pilot and Review in 2018 by Pete Arntsen, a senior hydrogeologist with Sand Creek Consultants.
Left undisturbed, dioxins tend to resist transport. But they can be spread by mechanical processes such as digging.
Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function, according to the World Health Organization. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions.
Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman did not respond to a request for comment for this story.