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City staff advises against Riverside Park testing

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By Shereen Siewert

Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman is advising city officials not to test any areas of Riverside Park, despite repeated requests from citizens and recommendations from state officials.

In an Aug. 28 memo posted late Friday afternoon to the city’s parks and recreation committee meeting packet, Lindman is asking committee members to hold off on any testing until Sentry Insurance-owned WAULECO completes state mandated testing of their own. The recommendation is the latest piece of what has become a contentious, months-long debate between concerned citizens and some city representatives. The parks and recreation committee first voted to advance testing in the park in January. But so far, no action has been taken.

In a statement, Citizens for a Clean Wausau Spokesman Tom Kilian was sharply critical of Lindman’s recommendation and is asking the city to commit dollars to public safety instead of taxpayer-funded “vanity projects.”

“To be clear, we are requesting that the committee dismiss the staff’s recommendation and reject the diminished alternative testing plan Councilman Peckham desired from REI and for which he has lobbied,” Kilian said. “We reasonably ask that the committee pursue a similar number of borings to those in REI’s initial proposal, while incorporating the recommendations from our presentation we were invited to give at City Hall. The facts are on our side, and if Councilman Peckham has suddenly become frugal, it would behoove him to pull tax dollars out of vanity projects, not overdue environmental testing.”

The controversy erupted more than 18 monhs ago when test results revealed high levels of dioxins in the soil beneath a culvert emptying into Riverside Park. The culvert neighbors an area that once housed a cold storage building at the former SNE plant. One area of the cold storage building was used as a “drum accumulation area” for hazardous waste, which was later moved to the main WAULECO facility. Dist. 1 Alderman Pat Peckham, who is chair of the parks and recreation committee, has been a vocal skeptic of concerns raised by the citizens group.

The land next to the park, a portion of which is now owned by the Sentry Insurance subsidiary, has been subject to decades of remediation efforts to remove toxic substances from the soil arising from the use of pentachlorophenol, or Penta, a potent pesticide used in wood manufacturing at SNE. Repeatedly, residents have expressed concern that digging up the soil for a planned road reconstruction project along Thomas Street could be a risk to public health.

A Phase I Environmental Study, which was conducted in May by REI, points to several areas of concern and noted that the investigation of the nearby WAULECO wood manufacturing site is still ongoing and being monitored by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“This site clearly has impacted groundwater which has migrated off the Wauleco site and onto adjacent properties including Riverside Park,” the assessment states.

The REI report also pointed to soil contamination from a petroleum spill at 3M as well as dioxions “likely deposited on the property from surrounding historical industrial uses,” according to city documents. Read the full report here.

REI initially proposed 20 hydraulic push soil borings in various places within the park property and the results would be turned over to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

But Peckham has twice called for revisions of the REI proposal, citing concerns over the $71,149 cost. The first revised proposal was presented at a July 23 park and recreation committee meeting and the second revision is being presented on Tuesday.

The most recent plan calls for six borings, just three of which are in the suspected runoff area.

The city continues to incur costs related to these proposal revisions and continued work by consultants with no decisions taking place, Lindman stated in his memo. Any further work to be completed by REI will need further budget approval prior to being completed.

In response to Lindman’s memo, the grassroots environmental group Citizens for a Clean Wausau issued a statement calling for the committee to reject his recommendation. The committee is pointing out that WAULECO’s test plan has little to do with Riverside Park, focusing instead on other areas in the neighborhood.

“While the staff memo recommends no testing in the park at this time, the committee is under no obligation to heed it,” the CCW statement reads. “Additionally, the City shared its desire to wait for WAUECO’s ‘required testing,’ but the public has not been properly informed about the nature of this required testing, and the fact that it has little to no relevance to Riverside Park matters. Last month, our group formally expressed concerns about the WAULECO testing plan to the DNR. Once Wausonians fully understand what WAULECO’s soil testing includes – and what it does not – we anticipate many residents will find WAULECO’s study to be deficient, flawed, and irrelevant.”

The committee meeting is set for 4 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau. See the full packet here.

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