Wausau City Council President Lisa Rasmussen speaks at an economic development committee meeting on Sept. 3, 2019

Damakant Jayshi

An Environmental Justice resolution that triggered lengthy discussion at a meeting of the Public Health and Safety Committee on Tuesday will now be taken up by Wausau’s Common Council in August, after the committee deadlocked on its fate.

Chair of the PHSC Lisa Rasmussen, who opposed the resolution, said the measure would go to the Common Council on a mixed recommendation from the committee. As per city rules, any resolution that goes through a committee, whether it passes or fails, is sent to the full council, which then decides to adopt or reject the measure. 

“Last night the committee was told that the city has no jurisdiction in managing environmental issues and that the agency with that control is the WI DNR (Department of Natural Resources),” Rasmussen wrote in an email to Wausau Pilot & Review. “So assuming this item passes, it has no effect on local conditions and is a symbolic gesture.”

Rasmussen has been very vocal against the resolution as well as the “Community for All” measure debated last year by city leaders. She repeated her assertion that many in the community have complained about the City taking up too many resolutions, diverting officials from their core work. But of the 12 people who spoke during the public comments period, 11 spoke in favor of passing the resolution, saying the environmental contamination is real. 

“I receive feedback daily from local residents who question the focus of the Wausau City Council since last year, because there really isn’t one,” said Rasmussen, who has previously supported a number of recent resolutions passed by the group.

Another member of the committee, Alderman Pat Peckham from Dist.1, tried to get the resolution passed by offering a motion to replace the word “ordinance” with “practices” in one section of the resolution. Peckham made the motion after Rasmussen objected to the language on the ground that the word “is a gateway to a whole bunch of things that we don’t yet know the ramifications of.” The resolution has already been reviewed by the city attorney before being presented to the committee this week.

Initially, the resolution was prepared by Alderman Tom Kilian of Dist. 3 who has accused Rasmussen and officials at the Public Works and Utilities of turning a blind eye to environmental justice issues that have been documented in his district for years. He also challenged Rasmussen’s assertion that passing the resolution as is would burden taxpayers and those interested in construction.

The resolution was approved in March by the Liberation and Freedom Committee, asking Wausau to support an “equitable share of environmental benefits and community assets in all neighborhoods…that enhance the quality of life, such as parks and open spaces, trees, natural areas, community gardens, and the riverfront, as well as equal access to the city’s environmental and infrastructure investments” that support health and a sense of community.

Days before the meeting on Tuesday, Director of Public Works and Utilities Eric Lindman and Environmental Engineer Kevin Fabel rejected the notion that environmental issues had any adverse impact on minority or low-income groups. In a memo to PHSC, Lindman quoted Fabel as asserting there were “zero” instances in which minority or low-income groups have been disproportionately affected by environmental consequences in the city. During the PHSC meeting, both Lindman and Fabel stood by their remarks.

Wausau’s record of containing chemical waste and contamination is not impressive, earning the city a spot on the “watchlist” in 2012 from federal agencies until 2015. Lindman did not respond to questions about his and his department’s role in the matter.

City officials, both elected and staff, have struggled to address the contamination and adverse environmental impact in low-income areas where minorities, especially Hmong, live in large numbers. They also have a history of opposing testing of sites that have been identified as contaminated and failing to disclose cleanup plans to the public in a timely manner.

Since 2019, there have been five new DNR Environmental Repair Program (ERP) sites listed in Wausau, three of which have been in the Thomas Street neighborhood. All five are in low-income areas. 

The city’s own application to the Environmental Protection Agency for a $200,000 Brownfields Planning Grant points specifically to the disproportionately high numbers of minority residents affected by environmental challenges in Wausau. The grant, signed by then-Economic Development Director Ann Werth, sought $200,000 in federal funding for environmental cleanup in the district based in part of the demographic makeup of the Census Tract. Additionally, the application noted that contamination from the Wauleco site is alleged to have resulted in the deaths of multiple residents. 

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.