By Shereen Siewert

A Wausau City Council representative is calling for environmental cleanup at a west side park after soil testing performed in April showed multiple exceedances of state Department of Natural Resources soil standards, validating long-held concerns by residents in the area.

For years, residents worried about potential soil contamination in Riverside Park and asserted there may be issues with cancer-causing soil dioxin levels in the that could exceed state standards. Now, that assertion is a reality, after the city’s April 2020 environmental testing revealed concentrations of dioxin and furan that exceed the DNR’s not-to-exceed direct contact limits for a non-industrial setting. Based on the city’s initial analysis, concentrations of one dioxin and one furan were more than double state soil limits for a non-industrial setting.

Multiple exceedances were identified below a culvert that empties into the park and 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.

Based on initial data and analysis by the city’s consultants, the other eight soil samples taken in the park away from the culvert outfall area also identified low-levels of contaminants, but those concentrations did not exceed state soil standards.

Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian, who spent several years fighting for environmental testing in the Thomas Street neighborhood before being elected to represent residents, is asking that the contaminated area be fully delineated, with cleanup to lower contaminant levels. Cleanup action could also include installing a cap to prevent future contaminant runoff into the park, a suggestion that aligns with typical cleanup efforts statewide.

If no action is taken, Kilian said, he expects community advocacy will continue to ensure concerns are legitimately satisfied.

Dist. 1 Alder Pat Peckham calls any speculation on cleanup “premature” and said the state Dept. of Health Services toxicologist who previously weighed in on the park’s environmental safety is looking at the test results and will send her observations to Public Works Director Eric Lindman next week.

But the toxicologist’s opinion may not matter from a legal standpoint. By law, regulatory standards set by the Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 720 (Wisconsin Soil Cleanup Standards), not individual toxicological opinions, generally guide decisions on remediation throughout the state. In addition, the park is near formally identified Environmental Justice populations, based on income and minority data, which makes rigorous, consistent enforcement of state soil standards even more critical, Kilian said. 

“While I thank DHS for its work and look forward to receiving the state’s toxicological opinion, it will be irrelevant,” Kilian said.

Lindman said he sees the DHS review as important to understand the health risk related to the testing results and to determine the best types of remediation, but he will not know exact steps moving forward until directed by the DNR.

Residents and environmental advocates have been urging the city and DNR to act since test results from 2006 surfaced in January 2018, more than a decade after those tests pointed to high levels of hazardous substances in soils beneath the culvert.

The tests were sent to DNR officials in 2008, then forwarded to the Marathon County Health Department. No action was ever taken to remediate the soil, and most residents were unaware of the testing until they were reported in 2018. Though the grassroots environmental group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, advocated for testing repeatedly, their concerns were often ignored, criticized as “scare tactics” or otherwise discredited.

The land next to the park, a portion of which is now owned by Wauleco, 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. Before running for office, Kilian was a frequent spokesperson for CCW, pushing city officials to act on the group’s research and recommendations.

Newly-elected Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg said that two weeks ago she walked through Riverside Park with Kilian, who pointed out some specific places he’d like to see tested and remediated.

“It’s a reasonable request and I am supportive of his effort,”Rosenberg said. “I think it’s important that the policy body talk through how to get this done.”

In a separate, but related issue, the DNR in 2019 launched an investigation into aerial deposition of possible toxic contaminants stemming from a Wauleco-owned site at the intersection of Thomas Street and Cleveland Avenue, adjacent to Riverside Park. The railroad corridor area that was tested at the direction of the DNR did not show any exceedances in DNR-mandated test areas, Lindman said. Overall, one test did reveal a single exceedance in non-industrial direct contact levels, according to city documents.

The Riverwalk project in this area is proceeding, Lindman said, and the top 6 inches of soils will be removed and brought to the Marathon County Landfill for disposal.  This area of work started June 8 and stretches from Thomas Street to Emter Street along the Wisconsin River.

Peckham said he expects to have the Riverside Park issue on the Park and Recreation Committee agenda for the first time on July 6 and said there are no plans to cordon off the affected area.

Kilian said he fully expects the DNR to rigorously enforce its own protective standards in this case.

“It will be unacceptable to me if Riverside Park is treated any differently than other similar situations,” Kilian said. “My constituents deserve no less and it is unlikely that my position will waver on this topic.”

See Kilian’s June 8 letter to the DNR, embedded below.