Editor’s note: This version corrects the time of Tuesday’s meeting to 4 p.m. The original story stated the meeting time as 4:30 p.m.
Wausau Pilot and Review regrets the error.
By Shereen Siewert
Members of a grassroots environmental group are continuing their pursuit of environmental testing and potential cleanup in Riverside Park despite apparent ongoing resistance and criticism from key city representatives.
Citizens for a Clean Wausau members will present the group’s research and findings Tuesday at a meeting of Wausau’s Parks and Recreation Committee in response to an invitation from council member Dennis Smith, who serves on the committee. The invitation came July 1 during a meeting held at the park, where city officials discussed a proposal from local engineering firm REI to perform 20 hydraulic push soil borings in various places within park property.
“We know that soil sample results in the park from 13 years ago showed WDNR dioxin and furan exceedances. While we hope those levels may have declined to a point that they are now within acceptable Wisconsin Soil Cleanup Standards, this needs to be confirmed, and likely should have been years ago,” the group said, in a prepared statement. “If upcoming testing still shows any contaminants which exceed state standards, the objective is to have the area of contamination fully defined and remediated. That remediation process must include a meaningful public involvement process.”
Some members of the citizens group have been researching environmental issues in Riverside Park and throughout the neighborhood for years. Their efforts have been applauded by several council members, including Smith, and resulted in a statewide openness award from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
But not all city officials are on board with the group, according to emails obtained by Wausau Pilot and Review, and CCW representatives say those emails are simply the latest example of disrespectful conduct toward residents regarding crucial neighborhood matters over the years.
“There has been a pattern of inappropriate, disrespectful conduct from some at City Hall regarding neighborhood matters for some time now — from department heads to city staff, and even from elected officials,” said Tom Kilian, a member of the group.
The most recent example the group points to began July 12, when Dist. 1 Alderman Pat Peckham, who is chair of the parks committee, informed Kilian that the group would be limited to a 10-minute window in which to present its information. Peckham insisted on the limit even after Kilian explained that the volume of information gathered, along with a Power Point presentation, would take an estimated 30 minutes to fully present to the group. Peckham did not respond to an email from Wausau Pilot and Review asking for the basis of the proposed time limit.
“This type of limitation of speech that was imposed does not seem typical or consistent, as developers receiving taxpayer dollars do not appear to be limited, but a group of residents with well-founded concerns were,” Kilian said.
Peckham has been a vocal skeptic of efforts by members of Citizens for a Clean Wausau to secure more testing in the neighborhood, often taking to Facebook to pointedly refute their positions on both Riverside Park and the Thomas Street project. His time limit, along with an email Public Works Director Eric Lindman sent to the committee calling CCW’s past questioning “completely unprofessional and out of line,” prompted the group to withdraw from participation in the meeting. Lindman’s email alleged that the group had made accusations of conspiracies and had questioned the integrity of one of his employees.
Lindman’s allegations regarding his employee stem from a June meeting in which Kilian pointed out that city officials did not immediately disclose that Wausau Environmental Engineer Kevin Fabel, who spent nearly 45 minutes presenting a report to the parks committee that dealt significantly with past contamination by Crestline and SNE, is the son of SNE’s former director of manufacturing and material management. SNE was an enterprise of Sentry in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Sentry and its subsidiary, WAULECO, were defendants in a lawsuit in which numerous residents of the River Street and Thomas Street neighborhood alleged that cancer, illness, and even death resulted from past contamination stemming from operations at Crestline and SNE.
In a July 16 email the group thanked Smith and other council members who support citizen involvement and local efforts to address environmental contamination, but communicated the group’s decision not to participate in the meeting. Instead, the group said it would provide the full presentation and supporting materials to all council members, the public and the media.
Following the email exchange, Peckham reversed course on the time limit. The group will now present its materials as planned on Tuesday, though Peckham remained skeptical on social media regarding the need for additional time.
Peckham is also at odds with group members in other aspects of the proposed testing. Peckham has strongly supported the use of WAULECO’s consultant, TRC, to perform the city’s sampling. However, the possibility of using TRC has come under strong criticism from neighborhood residents and local environmentalists alike since they are the longtime consultants of a Responsible Party (RP) for pollution in the neighborhood. It now appears that REI may perform the park soil sampling in the future.
This is not the first time the group has been rebuffed or criticized by city officials. The last request to participate in a city presentation was rejected by Mayor Rob Mielke in November. And in 2016, then-council member Sherry Abitz, in a post on Peckham’s Facebook page, threatened to get “revenge” against city residents who she blamed for delays to construction on Thomas Street. The threat, which specifically named Kilian, was reported in a Wausau Daily Herald story. Kilian has expressed frustration that Peckham failed to report the threat and did nothing about it.
CCW representatives say they will no longer tolerate disrespect from city officials who have repeatedly criticized or rejected their research, even as regulators and other groups have applauded the group for its accuracy and results. The group’s research to date has led to DNR investigation and action on several fronts, including air deposition from area manufacturing operations and improper discharge of stormwater into the Wisconsin River. CCW has been a source on environmental reporting for various news outlets statewide including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wausau Pilot and Review.
“It would be honorable of the council to make sure that this does not occur again and that City Hall is fostering a culture of respect toward the citizens it serves,” the group stated.
Regardless of their reception by city officials, the group is vowing to move forward and continue its work holding polluters accountable for any environmental damage to the area.
“We will be watching WAULECO’s air deposition study closely because it is relevant to the park testing,” the group stated. “Of particular interest is its background level sampling and definition which, from the work plan, already raises some questions and potential red flags, in our opinion. Appropriate residential background values should be determined, and not just for dioxins, but for other contaminants including arsenic.”
The public meeting is slated for 4 p.m. on Tuesday, July 23 at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau.