By Shereen Siewert

Plans for a nonprofit campus to serve homeless and low-income Wausau residents is reigniting long-held environmental concerns about a west side property, once owned by a business investigated by the state for dumping hazardous waste.

If approved, the Community Partners Campus would house a 30,000-square-foot structure housing up to 15 local nonprofit partners in shared space at 1300 Cleveland Ave.in Wausau. The property is a roughly 7-acre parcel just south of the existing St. Vincent de Paul Thrift store. Essentially, the campus would provide a one-stop shop for people in need of crucial services in a single location, one that’s on the bus line.

But residents who attended a community information meeting Saturday about the project were largely opposed to having the campus in the Thomas Street neighborhood. Though critics pointed to a range of issues, some related to resident safety, the biggest concern is tied to years of environmental issues at the site, which some say could take millions of dollars to clean up.

Illegal waste, a DNR investigation

The site proposed for the Community Partners project was for decades the home of Connor Forest Product Industries, which first manufactured veneer and plywood. Later, the company ventured into kitchen cabinets and then into wood toys at the Wausau location.

The property has been under scrutiny several times. In 1981, 10 soil borings were ordered amid allegations of illegal waste dumping and, according to DNR documents, those borings showed significant amounts of roofing granules from 3M, which operates nearby. Safety data sheets for roofing products produced at 3M in Wausau, posted on the company’s website, include warnings that the materials used “may cause cancer” and “causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure” to the respiratory system.

Another investigation happened in 1985 when the DNR launched an investigation into illegally buried hazardous waste on the property.

That investigation, which acted on information from Connor officials, sprang from the discovery of barrels buried at the company’s Laona location that contained a mix of paints, solvents, stains, paint thinners and other wastes.

The investigation revealed that Connor had illegally buried 184 barrels, 29 of which contained hazardous waste, at seven sites across Wisconsin including Wausau.

About 60 drums were excavated in Wausau, according to an in-field assessment by groundwater consultants hired by Connor. Of those, about 75 percent were intact. Solid glue resin lined the inside of about 10 barrels.

But despite information from a confidential informant who worked for the DNR that strongly suggested the dumping was widespread, none of the 60 barrels recovered in Wausau were tested, according to the assessment. Instead they were hauled to the Marathon County Landfill.

The company deemed the remediation complete.

The DNR informant also told city officials that employees at Connor routinely collected chemicals at the end of their shifts, dumping them directly into the ground, potentially leading to significant groundwater and soil contamination problems. And residents living along Cleveland Avenue then reported that water from their private wells tasted like lacquer, especially in the spring, according to city documents.

The DNR declined to interview employees about the allegations, but did refer the case to the state Department of Justice for review.

But at that point, the investigation stalled when then-Attorney General Bronson LaFollette opted for civil, rather than criminal penalties for Connor, one of several decisions that prompted a state ethics investigation into his actions. La Follette was sharply criticized when information emerged that he took campaign donations from the attorney representing Connor Forest Industries in the chemical dumping case before La Follette dropped the state’s criminal investigation.

La Follette denied any wrongdoing.

Connor then hired a consulting firm to determine whether any environmental damage had resulted from the dumping, according to 1985 media reports.

There is no evidence that remediation ever took place.

“Who’s going to pay for it?”

In 1986, the city of Wausau purchased the property where Connor Forest Industries once operated. That decision was not without controversy, after a Wausau City Council member raised alarm bells over potential conflict of interest, telling city officials that two officers of the Marathon County Economic Development Corporation stood to gain from the transaction.

Eventually the sale went through. But city documents show that local officials were concerned about potential liabilities linked to contamination on the CFI property from chemical contaminants that could impact soils and groundwater. Some of the contamination on the property was believed to have originated at SNE, documents show.

The abandoned plant was later demolished to make way for an industrial business incubator. That building was torn down in 2008.

Sid Elford, who has since 1972 lived in a home just west of the Cleveland Avenue property and who was part of the steering committee for the Holtz-Krause landfill remediation project, said his review of DNR documents show tens of thousands of gallons of glue and solvents were dumped on the property over the years.

Elford’s assertion is backed up by state documents that detail a 1981 covert operation in which 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 improperly dumped at the property over four years.

Those chemicals, Elford said, don’t simply go away unless they are actively remediated. To do so would likely require potentially contaminated soil transported to a Hazmat collection facility. The nearest site currently accepting waste is in Indiana.

“We’re talking about hundreds of truckloads at $3,000 to $5,000 per load,” Elford said. “Who’s going to pay for it? If the taxpayers are going to pay for it, I have a problem with that.”

As part of the city’s 1986 purchase agreement, 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. And what the agreement covers now, decades after the fact, is unclear.

Tom Kilian, the Wausau City Council member who represents the surrounding district, said he found it positive that Community Partners held a meeting. Initially, Kilian was in favor of the proposal, but he questions why neighborhood residents were left out of the process in the earliest stages.”

“It is important to note that at the onset of the planning process, apparently no one from City Hall even asked neighborhood residents what their goals or desires were for this city-owned property,” Kilian said. “That would be the obvious first step in any legitimate citizen-driven government process. It is my opinion, based on resident feedback, that the current RFP should be withdrawn, that a rigorous environmental investigation of the property should be initiated, and that any potential development for the property start with a city-led public involvement process in which residents’ goals and desires define what may ultimately go into that space.”

Compounding the issue is a zoning change for the former industrial site, approved in November 2018. That change 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.

How to move forward

Brian Gumness, CPC Board President, said his group did hear the concerns of the neighborhood and they believe some legitimate issues were raised.

“But to be sure, it is still our hope to move forward with our initiative and to be good neighbors, should the project proceed on this site,” Gumness told Wausau Pilot & Review. “We also strongly believe that Community Partners Campus would be an incredible asset to the neighborhood and the City of Wausau.”

Kilian said he has heard from a few constituents who strongly support the proposal for the nonprofit campus, which has signed letters of intent from about a dozen nonprofits interested in being part of the project.

“That being said, the overwhelming majority of feedback from citizens in the neighborhood has appeared to be opposition and rejection of this proposal, and the other three proposals the city received from its RFP,” Kilian said.

In December, members of the Economic Development committee were presented with a plan to issue a request for proposals to redevelop the property for future use. But after hearing concerns from residents, the committee ultimately recommended a Phase I assessment be completed for the property, which the city acquired in 1986. A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment, commonly referred to as an ESA, is a study that researches the current and historical uses of a property as part of a commercial real estate transaction. The report assesses whether current or historical property uses have impacted the soil or groundwater beneath the property and could pose a threat to the environment and/or human health. If these issues are found, it presents a potential liability for the lender or owner, as well as affecting the value of the property.

In January, Economic Development Director Chris Schock came back to the committee with a six-year-old assessment. But the committee asked for more information when Kilian, acting as a member of the grassroots environmental group Citizens for a Clean Wausau, pointed out that the 2014 report could not be considered complete because hundreds of pages of additional documentation about the environmental history of the site were not publicly available at the time the report was compiled.

Schock issued a request for proposals for the property in February at the direction of the council after a revised report was issued. At that time, then-Mayor Robert Mielke told the council that there were “interested parties” that wanted to get started on a project quickly – before an RFP was ever issued.

The Community Partners project is one of four responses to the RFP considered by Economic Development committee members earlier this month..

Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg said the Community Partners Campus project is a good concept that tackles some of the needs identified in the Marathon County LIFE report and in the homelessness task force, but she will work to understand the neighborhood concerns.

Rosenberg pointed to another project she was involved in that drew the ire of residents before moving forward: the North Central Health Care renovations, a project that was publicly in the works for many months. At the plan commission stage, several neighborhood residents were upset about the new structures.

“Concerns can happen at any point of the conversation and you have to be ready for it as community leaders,” Rosenberg said. “This is one of those projects that may require a bit more public discussion. It’s a big idea. It’s an important idea. And it’s an idea that we’ve identified as community as a priority. I definitely don’t want to see it fizzle out.”

“We are all in this as a team and it’s important that the neighborhood is brought along,” she said.

But Kilian said he does not believe the neighborhood is being brought along at this point in the discussion.

“It is now my impression that there is a lot of political juice behind developing this particular property, and that no matter what the prevailing opinion may be of residents in this area, the intent of the city and the private sector may be to just shove one or more of these proposals down the Thomas Street neighborhood’s throat,” Kilian said. “That is unfortunate.”

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