By Shereen Siewert

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is requiring 3M in Wausau to investigate and clean up environmental contamination on property the company purchased late last year, an area adjacent to a largely residential neighborhood.

The company received a responsible party letter from the DNR in February outlining state-mandated requirements. State officials are now reviewing 3M’s proposed cleanup plan.

In November 2020 3M , 141 Rosecrans St., purchased the property from Canadian National Railway. The roughly 1.25-acre site includes three lots consisting of both railroad track and right-of-way. According to historical aerial photographs and topographic maps, the site appears to have been developed with railroad tracks since 1898. Two of the parcels involved run along Thomas Street.

DNR hydrogeologist Matt Thompson said the contamination was likely in place before the company bought the property. Fanna Haile-Selassie, communications manager for 3M in Saint Paul, Minn., said the discovery was made as part of the company’s acquisition of the property and was promptly shared with the DNR.

The DNR letter points to specific concerns about trichloroethylene, or TCE, a chlorinated solvent and common degreaser. TCE is of special concern from a human health perspective due to its potential for acute health risks at relatively low concentrations in air, according to the DNR letter. The substance is a breakdown product of a historically common dry-cleaning chemical. When TCE is present, vapors can travel from contaminated soil or groundwater and along preferential pathways, such as within sewer lines, and enter occupied buildings, according to the DNR. This is known as vapor intrusion.

In addition to concerns over TCE, the DNR focused on samples with demonstrated arsenic levels that exceed state regulatory standards. One of the samples exists on property that borders 1300 Cleveland Ave., a city-owned property in which arsenic was also detected in levels above regulatory limits. The same sample also identified additional contaminants including PCBs, which are groups of man-made organic chemicals consisting of carbon, hydrogen and chlorine atoms. PCBs were domestically manufactured from 1929 until manufacturing was banned in 1979.

PCBs do not readily break down once in the environment, remaining for long periods cycling between air, water and soil. Because PCBs can be carried long distances and have been found in snow and water in areas far from where they were released into the environment, neighborhood residents and environmental advocates say pose potential concerns for residents living in homes nearby. Studies of PCBs in humans have found increased rates of melanomas, liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, biliary tract cancer, gastrointestinal tract cancer, and brain cancer, and may be linked to breast cancer, according to the Illinois Dept. of Public Health.

But Thompson said the key issue at this point is the arsenic in the soil.

“We are working with the DNR to address the issue and have already submitted our proposed work plan to the DNR for its review,” said Fanna Haile-Selassie, of 3M.

On April 26 Arcadis U.S., Inc., on behalf of 3M, submitted a proposed work plan to the department outlining soil testing and remediation efforts moving forward.

3M’s consultant is proposing new soil borings in the vicinity of West Thomas Street. Thomson said the DNR is now assessing whether or not additional soil samples should be taken, possibly near Sherman Street. Because no groundwater contamination was identified during the initial sampling event, the DNR will not require further groundwater studies at this time, Thompson said.

“Once the Department reviews the investigation work plan for compliance with state law, it will communicate any needed changes then wait for 3M to complete the additional field work,” Thompson said.

Terry Kilian, spokeswoman for the grass roots environmental advocacy group Citizens for a Clean Wausau, said the latest finding shows, once again, that industrial operations are not appropriate for a largely residential area.

“Because one property borders 1300 Cleveland Avenue, we are concerned about the concentration of arsenic found in the soil, along with other contaminants,” Kilian said. “Obviously, there is no invisible barrier which prevents these contaminants from migrating to adjoining properties or properties in close proximity. We applaud the DNR for issuing the Responsible Party letter, and also hope that 3M has abandoned its plans for rail operation expansion on 1300 Cleveland Avenue, since the public made it clear that it overwhelmingly opposes such inappropriate expansion.”

3M is one of two companies that sought to purchase 1300 Cleveland Ave. from the city to expand operations there and rigorously opposed a recent zoning change that reclassified the land for residential use.

Environmental history

Once named the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, 3M has been operating in Wausau since 1929 and employs about 150 people. The Wausau plant is the company’s oldest operating manufacturing facility in the world.

The company has been repeatedly under fire both in Wausau and in other states where they operate. Nationwide, 3M has appeared several times on the Political Economy Research Institute’s list of the top 100 polluters in the nation and has been fined 36 times since 2000 with $852,642,126 in penalties paid, according to the Good Jobs First violation tracker. Good Jobs First is a national policy research center.

3M is ranked 103 in the nation in the most recent Toxic 100 Air Index, which ranks U.S. industrial polluters using the U.S. EPA Toxics Release Inventory. The PERI Indexes include Environmental Justice indicators to assess impacts on low-income people and minorities. The current list is based on 2018 data.

“The Toxic 100 and Greenhouse 100 inform consumers, shareholders, regulators, lawmakers, and communities which large corporations release toxic and climate-altering pollutants into our environment,” said Professor Michael Ash, co-director of PERI’s Corporate Toxics Information Project. “We assess not just how many pounds of pollutants are released, but which are the most toxic. People have a right to know about toxic hazards to which they are exposed. n making this information available, we are building on the achievements of the right-to-know movement.”

In February 2019, the company settled a contentious lawsuit in Minnesota after agreeing to give the state $850 million to resolve the largest environmental lawsuit in the state’s history. The lawsuit, which arose amid allegations of decades-long contamination of groundwater in the Minneapolis area, was settled one day before a trial was set to begin.