By Shereen Siewert

Members of the Wausau City Council on Tuesday are expected to make a final determination on a grassroots environmental group’s request to independently test soils in Riverside Park at the group’s own expense, but what was once a concern over cost appears to have shifted to the city’s potential liability should contaminants be found.

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. The group proposes testing the area using Sand Creek Consultants, the same group that performed testing on Thomas Street last year. Riverside Park, 100 Sherman St., lies north of Thomas Street and east of First Avenue along the western banks of the Wisconsin River.

During a Sept. 3 public meeting, Mayor Rob Mielke said “Folks can take their testing wherever they want. I could care less.” He followed those comments with concerns over the cost of the testing.

“From a fiscal sense, the money that is involved in this, I do not have it right now,” Mielke said.

But now that CCW is offering to pay for testing at no cost to taxpayers, the dialogue is shifting to potential liability for the city. A memo from Public Works Director Eric Lindman in the Oct. 22 City Council meeting packet now cautions against “potential liability concerns.”

If the city or CCW perform testing within the park and identify exceedances the city, as owner of the park property, would be required to report the exceedances to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the memo states. Should contamination be found, the memo states, the city would “potentially be required to conduct additional extensive sampling…to minimize harmful effects.”

CCW prepared this statement in response:

“Citizens for a Clean Wausau hopes that — after the many years which have passed since the 2006 sampling — the dioxin and furan levels in the park’s soil no longer exceed state standards for residual contaminant levels. But relevant environmental testing is the only way to confirm if this is the case. Some at City Hall have recently made it clear that concerns over potential liability have been the real cause of endless delays by the City in this process. Further delay would be inappropriate, and we respectfully ask the full council to approve our request for access to test the park.”

The controversy erupted more than 18 months 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.

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.

The city council meets at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, in council chambers at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau. See the full packet here.