On Aug. 8th, the Wausau city council in Wisconsin voted 6-4 to move forward with the second phase of the Thomas Street redesign project, a project that has been in the works and plagued with debate and controversy since the 2000s.
Thanks to the petition voicing environmental concerns from hundreds of citizens and the publication of articles bringing potential issues to light, Mayor Robert Mielke has decided to have the city conduct environmental testing. However, construction will continue while soil samples are tested for contamination. The results from the testing will come in within two to four weeks.
Why Thomas Street?
Thomas Street, a traffic-heavy road people take to and from Rib Mountain or to cross the Wisconsin River, has water lines and sewage systems underneath it that haven’t been replaced since the 1920s, which has been a cause of concern because of the potential for lead contamination or bursts from corrosion.
Throughout the years, the project has been debated among residents and business owners unwilling to give up their homes when the city proposed expanding Thomas Street and demolishing upwards of 90 homes and businesses for better traffic flow. Over the years, construction proposals changed, but recent project proposals have still included the city purchasing and demolishing multiple properties.
The primary construction began in May, but residents remain concerned about the project. Over 200 residents signed a petition asking the city to conduct environmental testing before moving forward. Questions have arisen as to whether there are toxins in the soil underneath the road, which could cause groundwater contamination in the future. Construction will continue, but Mayor Mielke did decide to test soil samples for contamination.
Carcinogen Chemical is Part of the Street’s History
Thomas Street’s history gives reasons for residents to be concerned for future environmental dangers. Penta (pentachlorophenol), a chemical now classified as a
carcinogen by the World Health Organization, was used in manufacturing at what used to be a Crestline Windows site on the street from 1946-1986. According to allegations, the company often spilled Penta in the area. This contaminated the air, soil, groundwater, and affected the health of residents.
More recently, the current owner of the site, Wauleco, was sued in 2008 by 144 residents suffering from cancer and other health issues due to claimed contaminated groundwater and soil.
Despite these concerns, and a 2012 environmental impact report, conducted by Stantec, showing contamination in the Thomas Street area, the city council still voted to move the construction forward.
Lisa Rasmussen, City Council President, stated that the groundwater was 20 feet below the surface, therefore not posing any health or environmental risk; however, in some areas of the project, groundwater could be only 7-10 feet below the surface according to court documents.
A year ago, changes in regulations of road design could change the Thomas Street plans going forward. Some council members were unaware of these changes when they voted on whether or not to allow the city to continue with the project. New regulation rules, which eased requirements, could allow for the construction to continue while sticking to the road’s existing footprint. The city may no longer need to purchase and demolish the properties along the street, which could potentially speed up the construction process.
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