By Shereen Siewert

Members of a grassroots environmental group will move forward on independent soil tests in Wausau’s Riverside Park at their own expense, after being granted approval Tuesday by the Wausau City Council.

The Citizens for Clean Wausau plan calls for three samples performed by Pete Arntsen of Sand Creek Consultants, a professional hydrologist and geologist who performed earlier testing on Thomas Street. The samples will be tested using toxic equivalency values as currently used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with the results submitted to CCW, with copies to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the city.

The city’s parks and recreation committee on Oct. 7 gave unanimous preliminary approval to a request by Citizens for a Clean Wausau to test soils in Riverside Park at no expense to the city, a decision that was subject to full council approval. Sand Creek Consultants, the same group that performed testing on Thomas Street last year, will perform the three soil tests. Riverside Park, 100 Sherman St., lies north of Thomas Street and east of First Avenue along the western banks of the Wisconsin River.

Controversy over the environmental fitness of Riverside Park has swirled for the past 18 months, beginning with the discovery of 2006 soil samples taken there which revealed  the presence of direct contact soil exceedances for dioxins and furans. The samples were taken in relation to a lawsuit involving Sentry Insurance-owned WAULECO that alleged that penta-related dioxin contamination stemming from their former manufacturing site, immediately west of the park, had caused illnesses including cancer and, in some cases, death.

In July CCW member Tom Kilian offered a 36-slide presentation that outlined the group’s research and goals for the park. The group has for many months been asking for testing to determine if contamination levels in the park have declined enough over time to be within Wisconsin Soil Cleanup Standards (WSCS) levels. If levels are too high, the group is asking for a remediation plan.

But some city leaders balked at the costs of the tests, which CCW had initially asked the city to pay for. During a Sept. 3 public meeting, Mayor Rob Mielke said he was not opposed to testing, “as it has been shown many times,” but that the city had no money in the budget to pay for any Riverside Park-related action.

Consequently, CCW came up with a plan of its own in which the group would pay for testing, rather than taxpayers. That’s when concerns shifted from that of finance to that of the city’s potential liability.

The Dept. of Natural Resources earlier this year launched an investigation into aerial deposition of possible toxic contaminants stemming from the Sentry-owned site at the intersection of Thomas Street and Cleveland Avenue, adjacent to Riverside Park. Some city leaders, including Public Works Director Eric Lindman and City Council President Lisa Rasmussen, wanted to hold off on park testing until those results are analyzed by the DNR.

But Kilian said the WAULECO study is an aerial deposition study due to decades of burning when that facility was in operation. The park issue is based on stormwater runoff, Kilian said.

“You’re looking at two different studies,” Kilian said.

Rasmussen on Tuesday urged the council to wait on a decision and voiced strong opposition to the current testing plan, saying if samples show contamination it could place the city in a position of liability and result in future legal expenses.

“I support testing but not today and not tomorrow….I won’t put us at legal and financial risk knowing we don’t have to do this,” Rasmussen said.

But Dist. 11 council member Dennis Smith reminded Rasmussen that the council has already been waiting for 18 months to make a decision on the issue.

“This subject didn’t come up last Wednesday,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure our citizens are safe. All of a sudden we don’t want to spend money on legal fees. I’m going to support this. I’ve always supported it. I’ve walked through that park and It’s not even in my district.”

Becky McElhaney, who represents Dist. 6, said it is “shameful” that the city has not yet addressed the concerns surrounding the park.

“We expect our government to provide health and safety and I don’t believe we have done that,” McElhaney said. “Dealing with it is our duty to the taxpayers. It doesn’t matter who caused this problem. It’s on us to protect the citizens from here on out.”

Dave Nutting, who lives one block away from the park and represents the Riverside Park district, said he personally doesn’t believe there is a problem and has dogs who “lived 16 years” even though they spent time there. At past meetings, he has expressed frustration with CCW and said he was “growing very fatigued” of the discussion doesn’t know if it’s “possible to make the group happy.”

Nutting ultimately voted to approve the proposal, which passed by a vote of 8-3.