By Shereen Siewert

A Wausau alderman who is a member of a grassroots environmental group was the featured speaker Wednesday in a webinar series that shares the stories of environmental community activists and leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tom Kilian is a member of Citizens for a Clean Wausau and has been a longtime advocate for environmental safety in the area. He was interviewed by CHEJ (Center for Health, Environment, & Justice) as part of the organization’s weekly Living Room Leadership Series.

During the interview, Kilian said his motivation for getting involved in CCW began during the first phase of the Thomas Street reconstruction project, when members of the community stumbled upon evidence of serious environmental contamination issues in the neighborhood.

While researching the contamination in the area, he reviewed reams of court documents connected to a past lawsuit that alleged dozens of residents were exposed to harmful chemicals that resulted in a range of devastating illnesses ranging from thyroid disorders to cancers.

When he saw the list of associated illnesses, Kilian said, it broke his heart. He knew he had to act, and Citizens for a Clean Wausau was born. The group monitors significant local pollution and pursues environmental justice through research, communication, and action.

Early on there was some doubt that such a small group could make a big impact, Kilian said. But thanks to widespread resident support, the group has been successful in moving the needle toward positive change and working to solve the challenges that exist in the neighborhood.

“It takes a village, and without the community standing behind us we could not have accomplished some of these goals,” Kilian said, adding that he would like to see environmental justice protections and policies in place for Wausau neighborhoods in the future.

Kilian spoke candidly about the challenges the group has had since its inception in 2018, including pushback from City Hall and difficulties in obtaining open records as requested.

Describing his group as “nerds who never give up,” Kilian said their persistence has paid off, resulting in a DNR investigation and ongoing efforts to clean up contamination in the area.

Referring to a famous quote, Kilian said, “If you think you’re too little to make a difference, try sleeping in a small room with a mosquito. We’ve become that mosquito.”

An archive of the program is available on the CHEJ Living Room Leadership website.

The CHEJ series is held online each Wednesday and features leaders from across the country to speak about their strategies, challenges and wins as activists. Audience members have the chance to ask the leaders questions after they’re interviewed by a CHEJ team member.

Past guests have included Jackie Young Medcalf, the founder and Executive Director of the Texas Health & Environment Alliance; Linda Robles, the founder of the Environmental Justice Task Force in Tucson, AZ; and Lou Zeller from the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) in North Carolina.