By Shereen Siewert
Members of Wausau’s Economic Development Committee this week unanimously approved a comprehensive soil testing plan for a west side property under consideration for redevelopment.
The vote, which will now move on to the Finance Committee for review, proposes soil borings throughout the entire former Connor Forest Industries site at 1300 Cleveland Ave., Wausau, testing for metals and other potentially hazardous substances.
Connor Forest Product Industries, which first manufactured veneer and plywood before venturing into kitchen cabinets and wood toys, 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.
In a memo to council members, Public Works Director Eric Lindman outlined the history of the property now being considered for a nonprofit campus to serve low-income and homeless residents.
Past operations and practices by CFI is “checkered with non-compliance issues, mainly during the years of 1981 through 1987 based on the records that have been reviewed,” Lindman wrote. “There are references in the records that dumping of waste onsite had been taking place during years prior to this but minimal documentation was found about earlier year practices.”
Wausau bought the property in 1986. That decision was not without controversy; 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.
Lindman gave council members three recommendations: leave the property as is, perform minimal testing, or perform soil borings through the entire site. The proposed budget is $60,000, though that is a preliminary figure that could change depending on the scope of the investigation.
Lisa Rasmussen, who represents Dist. 7, told fellow committee members Tuesday that the CFI site should serve as an example of why industry and neighborhoods should not be tied together.
“These people either didn’t know or didn’t care,” Rasmussen said, referring to the past business practices at the site. “They did appalling things. They dumped things. They buried things. And now, for better or for worse, we’re the owner.”
During the meeting, Rasmussen said testing is crucial to ensuring the property is safe for the next owner, should Wausau choose to sell the property.
Tom Kilian, who represents Dist. 3, sits on the Economic Development Committee and is a member of the environmental group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, applauded the committee’s decision as a team effort that ultimately resulted in a positive outcome for the community.
“I was both relieved and pleased that the committee unanimously supported comprehensive environmental testing of the former Connor Forest Industries property, given its troubled history,” Kilian said. “The public works director and department also played an important role in facilitating this testing.”
The committee is recommending pursuing financing the testing through a fund established to clean up pollution on the former Holtz Krause landfill site. After 2015 the DNR gave the site a clean bill of health, which in turn freed up the money for other uses.
Unclear is the fate of a proposed Community Partners Campus, which would house a 30,000-square-foot structure housing up to 15 local nonprofit partners in shared space on the property.
“I think all I’m comfortable saying at this point is I know they’re investigating other properties in town,” Wausau Business Development Specialist Sean Fitzgerald said. “But I understand they haven’t ruled out the 1300 Cleveland site altogether, yet.”