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Wausau issues redevelopment request, but omits key information

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By Shereen Siewert

City officials this week issued a request for proposals, or RFP, to develop a portion of the east riverfront but the document does not disclose that the site is subject to deed restrictions and is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Priority List as a Superfund site.

Instead, the proposal refers to the Wausau Chemical property as a “documented brownfield site,” according to city documents, and makes no mention of a deed restriction filed by the EPA in 2007 with the Marathon County Register of Deeds that prohibits the property from being used for anything other than commercial or industrial purposes without undergoing an approval process. Construction of any water supply well on the site is also prohibited. Neither issue is included on the RFP but could be disclosed if interested builders contact Community Development with questions.

“Brownfield” and “Superfund” are not terms that can be used interchangeably, and have very different implications and requirements for developers interested in acquiring such properties.

“They are different indeed,” said Council President Lisa Rasmussen, who on Tuesday pressed Economic Development Director Chis Schock to add tell interested parties up front of the site’s challenges so expectations and proposals are realistic.

A Brownfield differs from Superfund sites in the degree of contamination, EPA officials say. Superfund site designations are reserved for areas where contamination poses a significant threat to human health or the environment and demands a concerted, long-term, federally coordinated remedy, according to EPA documents. “Brownfields, on the other hand, do not pose serious health or environmental threat. Instead they represent an economic or social threat, since they prevent development and therefore stifle local economies.”

In response to Rasmussen’s request, Schock added a sentence to the RFP that reads, “As with other successful brownfield redevelopments along Wausau’s developing urban waterfront, the City welcomes collaborative dialogue with developers and builders to answer questions, provide guidance, and partner for successful redevelopment.”

Wausau City Council President Lisa Rasmussen speaks at an economic development committee meeting on Sept. 3, 2019

Wausau Chemical was identified in 1988 by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site because of the land’s contamination by hazardous waste that poses a risk to human health or the environment. In its most recent five-year assessment, filed in April 2015, EPA officials wrote that complete remediation of soils beneath the Wausau Chemical building is “impractical.” See the full report, embedded below. The next scheduled report is due in April 2020.

The EPA cleanup so far has consisted of several groundwater wells with treatment systems, two soil vapor removal systems, a landfill cap, land and groundwater use restrictions and groundwater monitoring. The agency’s most recent assessment shows property has so far only been cleaned up to commercial or industrial standards.

According to federal documents, hundreds of gallons of toxic materials were spilled at the plant over the course of at least two decades.The most significant documented spill happened in 1983, when about  900 gallons of perchloroethylene spilled from a bulk storage tank located in Wausau Chemical’s “tank farm.” The tank farm, which has since been removed, was located on the south end of the plant. Those issues were cited in a 1987 lawsuit filed against the company by the federal government after hazardous substances, used in manufacturing chemicals and dry cleaning products, had been detected in groundwater beneath the Wausau Chemical facility and in tap water originating from city’s wells.

In February 2015 what was then Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, a Minnesota-based environmental consulting and engineering group now renamed GHD, performed a site investigation at Wausau Chemical and concluded that the current contaminant level did not impact groundwater, but represents a future potential source to groundwater contamination if the building is removed and the soil is not remediated. Council members in 2017 reviewed the report and concluded there were no elements to the study that would necessarily preclude redevelopment.

Under federal law, an additional Phase I assessment must be performed before a sale or transfer of the property is finalized to assess liability issues at the site. The written report must include the environmental professional’s opinion as to whether the inquiry identified conditions indicative of releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances at the subject property.

Not all members of the economic development committee appeared to understand the distinction between a brownfield and Superfund. In response to questions by Wausau Pilot and Review, Dist. 1 Council Member Pat Peckham responded, “I imagine the more generic ‘brownfield’ was used as a sort of catch-all. Full disclosure would be provided by Community Development and I’m sure would be a part of any developer’s due diligence after he or she read that one of the properties is the home of a chemical business.”

Peckham was also unaware of the deed restriction, which Wausau Pilot first reported in April 2017.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Hydrogeologist Matt Thompson tells Wausau Pilot and Review that brownfields are abandoned, idle or underused commercial or industrial properties, where the expansion or redevelopment is hindered by real or perceived contamination.

“Brownfields vary in size, location, age, and past use – they can be anything from a five-hundred acre automobile assembly plant to a small, abandoned corner gas station.”

An example would include sites along the riverfront currently under redevelopment, Thompson said.

Superfund sites can be successfully redeveloped and can be reclaimed for productive uses, EPA officials say.

Commercial uses tend to be the most popular. Such redevelopment can yield new jobs and tax dollars. Based on information collected at 487 of the 888 Superfund sites in reuse, the EPA estimates that cleaned sites supported about 6,600 businesses in 2017 with ongoing operations employing more than 156,000 people and generating annual sales of $43.6 billion.

Lessons are emerging from Superfund reuses to date, including the importance of involving the local community and creating a vision for reuse early in the cleanup process. But warnings also abound about what can go wrong during and after redevelopment, especially if inadequate attention is given to remediation. Environmental policy experts generally agree that efforts to revitalize formerly contaminated land can generate benefits. Critics, including Katherine Probst, an environmental policy consultant with expertise in Superfund, are concerned that too much attention on redevelopment could compromise the key goal of the Superfund program — to protect public health and the environment.

In addition to the Wausau Chemical property, the RFP encompasses the former Great Lakes Cheese parcel at 101 Devoe Street. Proposals are due Dec. 2 and are likely to be reviewed before the end of 2019.

Neither Schock nor Economic Development Committee Chair Tom Neal responded to a request for comment for this story.

EPA-Report

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