By Shereen Siewert

The results of an environmental study released in January show significant contamination at the site of a former wood processing plant, a city-owned property once operated by a business investigated by the state for dumping hazardous waste.

The 360-page Phase II study, performed by GEI Consultants, noted levels of potentially cancer-causing contaminants at as much as four times the industrial standard in some areas of the property at 1300 Cleveland Avenue, a roughly 7-acre parcel surrounded largely by residential homes.

Now, city officials will need to decide how far cleanup efforts will go – and who will pay for it.

In November 2018, members of the Wausau City Council unanimously approved a zoning change on the property from industrial to residential, ensuring no further manufacturing operations would be allowed there. Members of the council, after becoming aware of the environmental history and challenges posed at the property, overwhelmingly supported the zoning change.

“We in Wausau have some either grandfathered zoning classes or land uses that don’t necessarily dovetail well with neighborhoods and, nowadays, if the plan commission would look at a proposal to have industrial zoning right next to a neighborhood, they would likely deny it,” said then-Wausau City Council President Lisa Rasmussen, in a November 2018 Economic Development Committee meeting. “Taking this out of an industrial class, regardless of what it becomes, is a smart move.”

The zoning change also meant that any environmental cleanup on the property would be held to a residential, rather than industrial standard. Residential environmental standards are typically more stringent than those for industrial property sites.

Neighborhood residents, many of whom have been vocal about their longstanding environmental concerns in the neighborhood, applauded the move as a way to prevent future contamination. And members of the Plan Commission in November 2018 agreed that the property seemed a better fit for residential, rather than industrial, development.

But Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian, who for years led the call for environmental cleanup along the Thomas Street corridor, said he was stunned to learn that the property is no longer zoned as residential, despite the council’s vote.

According to a memo by City Planner and Interim Development Director Brad Lenz, the property was reclassified in 2019 during the city-wide rezoning project. Lenz, in his memo, said the property had been mapped using its historical zoning district, which was industrial.

“This was a mapping error that was not discovered until after the citywide map had been adopted (in 2019),” Lenz wrote.

Consequentially, the residential standard approved by the council no longer applies. Now, residents are newly concerned about the extent of future cleanup and potential uses for the property.

A history of environmental scrutiny

The Cleveland Avenue property 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 and is one of two companies proposing to acquire the land. 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.

Investigators discovered that Connor had illegally buried 184 barrels, 29 of which contained hazardous waste, at seven sites across Wisconsin including Wausau, according to state documents.

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.

Environmental review

A formal request for proposals to develop the land was issued in February 2020 by then-Economic Development Director Chris Schock. When presenting the RFP TO the council, Schock relied on a 2014 Phase I Environmental Site Assessment to reassure members that the property was safe.

Former Wausau Economic Development Director Chris Schock speaks to council members about the former Connor Forest Industries property during a February 2020 meeting. Wausau Pilot & Review file photo

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.

But Kilian and other members of the grassroots environmental group, Citizens for a Clean Wausau, pointed out last year that the Phase I study did not include hundreds of pages of additional documentation about the environmental history of the site. The documents that did not initially appear in the 2014 study were only made publicly available after members of the citizens’ group conducted massive research that uncovered reams of documents never entered into the state’s document repository.

Among the information considered: a 1986 in-field assessment of the property, performed by Geraghty & Miller, that describes the locations and contents of some earlier investigations, which — along with additional DNR documents — showed the presence of demolition materials, rusted barrels, plastic, sawdust, and glue in exploratory trenches dug in 1986. To date, there has been no evidence that many of the contaminants or landfilled materials discovered and listed in 1986 have been remediated.

Additional information from DNR records showed that an estimated 91,000 of glue resin waste containing a substantial amount of heavy metals was illegally dumped at Connor Forest Industries’ Wausau property.

Remediation efforts

Communities all across Wisconsin and even nationwide have successfully investigated, cleaned up and redeveloped many of their contaminated properties. Many of these redevelopment projects resulted in uses that make their communities a better place to be.

In Wausau, for example, the former site of Marathon Rubber Products Co., in the 500 block of Sherman Street, was transformed through the DNR’s Remediation and Redevelopment Program, a $100,000 grant to conduct investigation and demolition.

The city also obtained a $90,000 community development grant and the DNR issued a general liability clarification letter to assist in understanding any potential liabilities associated with the site. Since the cleanup was completed, the property has been redeveloped as a neighborhood park and includes housing for low- to middle-income families.

In 2020, plans for a nonprofit cooperative to serve homeless and low-income Wausau residents, the Community Partners Campus, prompted renewed concern about the environmental fitness of the site. CPC Vice President Kevin Noel told Wausau Pilot & Review the group was initially disappointed that the property wouldn’t work for the campus.

“…however, we are very excited about our site on Grand Avenue, as it has a great central location to meet the needs of our non-profit partners and the individuals and families they serve,” Noel said.

In an email to council members, Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman reminded officials that two neighboring manufacturing companies – Kolbe & Kolbe and 3M – previously proposed acquiring the property. Remediation cost estimates for residential, retail or commercial use, Lindman said, will require “much more testing and more time to prepare.”

Questions remain over where the responsibility lies for cleanup of the property, which Wausau bought in 1986. As part of the purchase agreement, both Connor 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 CFI and 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 past operations.

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.

City officials do expect to receive a Responsible Party Notification letter from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which received a copy of the report last week. DNR hydrogeologist Matt Thompson told Wausau Pilot & Review he is currently reviewing the study.

“Once I have had a chance to review the report I will meet with representatives of the city with their consultant as well as district representatives from the neighborhood to discuss the Department’s understanding of site conditions,” Thompson wrote, in a Feb. 2 email.

Wausau Business Development Specialist Sean Fitzgerald, during a Feb. 2 Economic Development meeting, said the city will soon review information from the DNR to assess options for both industrial and non-industrial level cleanup.

“That’s what we’re waiting on from the DNR, to get as robust a report as possible from them as possible,” Fitzgerald said.

Wausau Business Development Specialist Sean Fitzgerald speaks during a Feb. 2, 2021 meeting.

Kilian said he is encouraged to learn that the city will be providing council members with a plan and associated costs for cleaning up the site to non-industrial standards, too, and not just one using industrial standards.

“At the most recent Economic Development Committee, I and my colleagues were assured by the city that we would be receiving plans for both potential paths to remediation and closure — one path using looser industrial standards, and one path using the more rigorous and protective non-industrial standards — along with the associated costs of each,” Kilian said. “Since this site is located in the middle of a densely populated residential neighborhood and there was substantial contamination identified in top four feet of the soil, I feel that using the more protective non-industrial standards is appropriate. It would also appear to be a good way to prevent unpredictable migration of contaminants off of the site and into the surrounding area through multiple pathways. Clearly, the city has learned a big lesson about putting any type of industrial operation in a residential area, and by remedying the zoning error and foregoing industrial expansion there, we can improve upon our history in a positive way rather than repeat it.” 

A Committee of the Whole meeting has been set for Feb. 23 to discuss the implications of the report and next steps. See the full packet here.