Citizens for a Clean Wausau spokesman Tom Kilian addresses Wausau's Parks and Recreation Committee during a Sept. 3, 2019 meeting.

By Shereen Siewert

A debate over the environmental fitness of the River Street neighborhood continues in Wausau after city officials released soil tests results from a state-mandated study while continuing to push back against efforts to test soils in Riverside Park.

The DNR on Jan. 15 issued a request for information about past burning practices to Wauleco, Inc., which now owns the property at 125 E. Rosecrans St. in Wausau. 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.

Sentry Insurance subsequently conducted 36 surface soil samples, which were analyzed in relationship to the Department of Natural Resources direct contact residual contaminant levels, or RCLs, and the toxic equivalency, as used by the Wisconisn Department of Health Services. Five of the 36 samples exceeded residential direct contact RCLs, according to the report. The samples will be analyzed by state toxicologists to calculate a health and cancer risk assessment for the area, city officials say.

A more detailed report is expected in November.

Meanwhile, members of a grassroots environmental group are waiting for approval to conduct independent soil tests in Wausau’s Riverside Park at their own expense — but so far have only received questions, not approval, from Mayor Robert Mielke. In a news release sent Friday afternoon, Public Works Director Eric Lindman said the city is awaiting responses to their questions — but the group is calling that statement inaccurate, noting that a reply was already sent to the city about its questions.

Mielke said he must ask questions “to protect the city and especially in a legal sense, not because I do not want testing done or for those residents to not be heard from.”

Specifically, Mielke said, his office asked Citizens for a Clean Wausau the following questions last week:

  • Will the CCW provide a report interpreting the results of the testing?
  • Will the CCW complete a risk assessment of the results, similar to what the City had conducted on previous testing?
  • If the CCW completes these three soils tests on their own, does the CCW consider this sufficient testing at this time and will not request the City to perform more testing?
  • City staff, along with our outside environmental and outside legal consultants/experts continue to advise us to hold off on testing until we are able to see what the Wauleco test results show and to determine if Wauleco will be required to perform additional testing. Depending on the results of the Wauleco testing and the potentially the CCW testing may have significant impact if the City moves forward with testing.
  • Wauleco will be providing a full final report and analysis of the testing results The City will be asking the Department of Health Services to once again, perform a risk assessment of the Wauleco results.

CCW officials say Lindman’s statement implies the group is delaying an answer to questions that have already been addressed or are not pertinent to their request.

“The mayor told us in public and on video that the community could test wherever it wanted — there were no caveats, other than the City couldn’t pay for it,” said Tom Kilian, a volunteer with CCW.

Kilian said the group remains confused about how the mayor’s questions are pertinent to granting access to test the park since the only concerns Mielke has publicly raised were regarding to the cost of the samples, not whether testing is appropriate.

“To clarify, we are simply requesting access to take soil samples in the park at our own expense,” Kilian said. “We had planned to and will happily share the testing results with the City and the DNR. However, we do not understand why the City would not simply put this matter on the proper committee and council agendas for approval, if such approval is required. The goal is to take these samples in October while the weather and season are still accommodating.”

Mielke personally stated that citizens were welcome to test wherever they please as long as the city was not footing the bill.

During a Sept. 3 public meeting, Mielke said “Folks can take their testing wherever they want. I could care less.”

Still, Mielke remains adamant that the group is not answering questions.

“No-the CCW did not answer our questions and does not (I guess) wish to answer them,” Mielke said, in an email to Wausau Pilot and Review. “The rationale is to simply protect the city, in order to make sure things are being done correctly and information shared together…..we just want to know of the scope of services completed on city property

“The rationale is to simply protect the city, in order to make sure things are being done correctly and information shared together…..we just want to know of the scope of services completed on city property-again, it is the same questions sent to them as were back in the Fall-2017 in regards to Thomas Street,” Mielke said. “I also know that we would be questioned by members of both the Parks & Rec Committee as well as the City Council, again to possibly protect the City from any legal issues that might arise…and since we have been repeatedly told by our outside environmental experts  and legal counsel to not allow this, we would like to have the same questions sent out last time, be answered and addressed this time as well…it is not just an “easy” letting anyone or group go and test, there are possible further issues if not done properly and where the City can be held liable.”

“The questions are pretty simple to answer,” Mielke said.

Dist. 1 council member Pat Peckham initially offered to put CCW’s request on the Oct. 7 parks and recreation meeting agenda, so the testing request can be approved by the full council on Oct. 8, but he cautioned that the committee might opt to wait until city-directed testing is performed before making a decision.

Penta, now a known carcinogen, was used for decades in wood manufacturing processes at the site and was central to a 2008 class action lawsuit filed by 144 people who claimed toxicity in the soil and groundwater that migrated from the site caused cancer and other health problems. The widespread use of Penta and its potential residual impacts on the environment have been a longstanding concern of people living in and around the Thomas Street corridor and Riverside Park, which lies to the north of Thomas Street and edges the Wisconsin River.