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Federal report: Wausau Superfund site at risk from flooding

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By Shereen Siewert

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released this month identifies Wausau’s Superfund site as one of 23 in Wisconsin deemed vulnerable to flood hazards, resulting in potential public safety issues.

The report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent agency that works for the U.S. Congress, assessed how flooding, storm surge, wildfires and sea level rise might impact some of the most dangerous hazardous waste sites around the country. The agency looked at 1,336 “active” sites on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List and 421 sites where EPA had determined no further cleanup was needed.

Screen shot from U.S. GAO interactive map showing Superfund sites identified as having potential flood-related hazards. (Nov. 21, 2019)

Nationwide, at least 945 sites — or about 60 percent of Superfund sites in the U.S. that are not owned by federal agencies — are vulnerable to floods, storm surges, wildfires or sea level rise, according to the GAO.

Those impacts, the GAO warned in its report, pose potential risks  to public health by spreading pollution from such sites. The agency pointed to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when an unprecedented amount of rainfall dumped on Houston, damaging Superfund sites and releasing toxic materials. 

The Wausau Groundwater site, which the GAO considers at “high risk” of flooding, runs along the east side of the city’s riverfront and includes Wausau Chemical, property that city officials are actively seeking to redevelop. A request for proposals is currently open for the property.

The site 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. EPA reports from the Wausau site show that the soil beneath Wausau Chemical could contain significant contamination from a range of toxic chemicals, though some city officials have publicly disagreed with that assessment.

The Superfund law requires regular checkups of sites that have been cleaned up to ensure the cleanup continues to protect people and the environment, and the EPA assesses the Wausau site every five years. In addition to the groundwater monitoring conducted for the Superfund site, the city monitors the post-treatment water supply by performing quarterly sampling and analyses.

In its most recent assessment, filed in April 2015, EPA officials wrote that complete remediation of soils beneath the Wausau Chemical building is “impractical.” EPA’s cleanup included several groundwater wells with treatment systems, two soil vapor removal systems, a landfill cap, land and groundwater use restrictions and groundwater monitoring.

Statewide, 23 of the 44 active and deleted Superfund sites surveyed are in areas deemed vulnerable to flood hazards.

In addition to Wausau the Sheboygan Harbor and River Site, which extends 8 miles through Sheboygan County, is another site that could be impacted by flooding, according to the GAO report. Some river sediments contain high levels of PCBs, which are toxic industrial compounds. 

A landfill owned by the Town of Onalaska is also vulnerable to flooding, the report found. Waste products at the landfill were leaching through the soil, contaminating ground water and a nearby private well.

But the GAO is at odds with the Environmental Protection Agency, at least on three key points.

“For example, EPA has not taken actions consistent with one essential element because it has not aligned its process for managing risks with agency-wide goals and objectives, which do not mention climate change,” the report states. “Without clarifying this alignment, EPA cannot ensure that senior officials will take an active role in strategic planning and accountability for managing these risks.”

See the full report here.

(Top photo courtesy of Vision-Airy Films)


Wausau Chemical site history

According to a 1991 lawsuit between Wausau Chemical and the company’s insurer, Maryland Casualty:

  • In the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, an unknown quantity of perchloroethylene was spilled from a railroad tank car on the railroad right-of-way adjacent to Wausau Chemical, about 200 feet to the east of the Wausau Chemical plant.
  • In approximately 1974, an unknown quantity of acetone was spilled at Wausau Chemical.
  • In or about November 1981, approximately 100 gallons of mineral spirits were spilled at Wausau Chemical.
  • Between December 1982 and February 1983, about ten gallons of perchloroethylene were spilled in the truck bay within the Wausau Chemical plant.
  • On or about February 15, 1983, 137 gallons of perchloroethylene were spilled at Wausau Chemical, on a loading dock located near the northwest corner of the plant.
  • In April 1983, approximately 10 to 15 gallons of a solvent blend were spilled.
  • On December 19, 1983, approximately 800 to 900 gallons of perchloroethylene were 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 Wausau Chemical plant.
  • In May 1975, the City of Wausau encountered strong odors when it began excavation for an addition to its water treatment plant, immediately to the south of Wausau Chemical’s North River Drive facility. Analysis of the groundwater at the construction site by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources indicated the presence of perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene.
  •  On June 24, 1975, the DNR issued an emergency order requiring Wausau Chemical to “immediately cease any activity on its [North River Drive] property that would allow the entrance of further chemical contaminants in the groundwater and soils of the state” and to make “improvements on its … facility and operations … to assure that no chemicals stored in or handled at said facility enter the soils or waters of this state.”
  • In June 1984, the United States Environmental Protection Agency initiated a removal action in response to contamination of groundwater at the Wausau Groundwater Contamination Site, which encompassed all groundwater used for the City of Wausau’s water supply. The removal action included the installation of a Granular Activated Carbon system and an air stripper to treat the contaminated groundwater and investigation to define the threat to the environment
  • On August 15, 1984, Wausau Chemical notified its insurers of the EPA and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources investigations of the chemical spilOn or about December 2, 1985, Wausau Chemical received a letter from EPA giving notice of contamination of the Wausau Wisconsin groundwater. In the letter, the EPA requested that Wausau Chemical undertake certain removal or remedial action to address the groundwater contamination under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980.
  • In November 1987, the United States filed a federal lawsuit against Wausau Chemical and James E. Cherwinka, alleging that hazardous substances, including perchloroethylene, had been detected in groundwater beneath the Wausau Chemical facility, in groundwater in the Wausau Contamination Site, and in tap water originating from city’s wells.

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