By Shereen Siewert
City officials have formally released a request for proposals to redevelop the former site of the environmentally challenged Connor Forest Industries, but questions remain over whether plans are already in the works for the west-side property.
Economic Development Director Chris Schock, on Feb. 20, said the RFP is a way to gauge interest in the property. Both Schock and Council President Lisa Rasmussen said the city had no current plans under consideration for the parcel.
But that seemed to be contradicted by Mayor Robert Mielke, who indicated otherwise when asking for the response window to be shortened from 60 days to 30.
“There are some people that are interested in this,” Mielke told the committee Feb. 20. “We’ll see what happens, and they want to get started on it as soon as possible.”
That statement, combined with an earlier decision by the council to approve a zoning change request for the property from industrial to residential use, is raising alarm bells with some residents and members of the grassroots group Citizens for a Clean Wausau.
Tom Kilian, a spokesman for CCW who is also a candidate for Wausau City Council, stepped up to the podium to ask for clarification.
“At the beginning of this meeting Ms. Rasmussen stated that there was no stated or articulated interest and now what I’m hearing from the mayor is that there is indeed some specific interest in this property so I’d like to know, which is it?” Kilian asked. “And secondly, in the interest of public involvement and transparency, if the mayor could step up and let us know what those interests are? Because what I don’t want to see is some opaque process where there’s interest from specific parties prior to a public RFP, and this is pushed through before an election date… jammed through without proper transparency and process.”
Schock responded by saying there has been “historic interest” in the property over the years with “multiple entities.”
“There are several interested parties, discussions if you will,” Mielke added. “This has been going on for some time and they want to get started before the construction season with spring and everything like that coming.”
Both Tom Neal and Rasmussen said they felt the RFP was being “fast-tracked,” and urged the committee to give enough time for thorough responses by interested parties, and directed city staff to extend the deadline for responses to May 1.
The zoning change for the former industrial site was approved in November 2018. The change, Kilian said, means any environmental testing that will be performed on the property will now be held to a residential, rather than an industrial, standard. Residential environmental standards are typically more stringent than those for industrial or commercial property sites.
Environmental questions linger
Members of the committee reviewed a recently completed Phase I environmental assessment for the parcel as they discussed whether environmental testing would be appropriate either before or after issuing the RFP. Though Mielke suggested it would be difficult to pinpoint what potential contaminants to test for and where tests would be performed, a 1986 in-field assessment of the property by Geraghty & Miller does describes the locations and contents of some earlier investigations, which — along with additional DNR documents from that time — showed the presence of demolition materials, rusted barrels, plastic, sawdust, and glue in exploratory trenches dug in 1986. CCW states that, while documentation could possibly exist, they have encountered no evidence that many of the contaminants or landfilled materials discovered and listed in 1986 have since been remediated.
Previous research by CCW uncovered a long history of environmental issues on the property that was documented by DNR officials, but were not entered on the public BRRTS website.
Among the findings:
- In 1981, the DNR sent three representatives to secretly watch activities at the Wausau location.
- Later, the DNR would estimate that more than 91,000 gallons of waste had been illegally dumped at the property over four years.
- According to a November 1985 Green Bay Gazette news story, “barrels were unearthed between June (1985) and September at seven separate sites, including a shallow pit behind the Connor Forest Industries flooring mill in Laona and the firm’s Wausau mill.” The matter was eventually referred to the Department of Justice because of illegal disposal of hazardous and solid waste, according to media reports, and the company was fined.
- Public documents from 1986 connected to the city’s purchase of the property show city officials were concerned about potential liabilities linked to contamination from chemical contaminants that could impact soils and groundwater. Some of the contamination of concern was across the street on the SNE property, including dioxins, documents show.
As part of the purchase agreement when the city bought the property in 1986, both CFI and SNE agreed to indemnify and hold the city harmless from all liabilities incurred by the purchase. In return, the city agreed to promptly notify SNE of any monitoring or requested or required remedial action resulting from contamination, including dioxins and furans. But in order for SNE’s parent company, Wauleco, to be held liable, officials would have to prove that the contamination is directly related to the company’s past operations.
The committee is now seeking more information on whether the agreement is still valid, a point brought forward by Kilian.
“If this is still valid…it would be in the best interest to ride it until the wheels come off,” Kilian said. “If you have a valid indemnification agreement then test, test test; and if you find something traced to them, make them remediate and pay for it.”