Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Man operating aluminum manufacturing equipment © Trish Ossmann

Skana Aluminum is a revitalized company that brought aluminum manufacturing back to life in Manitowoc.
© Trish Ossmann

August 2012

Volunteering to clean up? Who would do that?

Here's your answer.

Andrew Savagian

Watch us on YouTube Watch videos of Skana Aluminum and Phoenix Park successes

When most people think about the Department of Natural Resources and volunteers, their thoughts gravitate to citizens helping natural resource staff in the field – pulling garlic mustard in state parks, banding waterfowl in state natural areas or maybe volunteering with agency staff in the Northwoods on wolf howling surveys.

Rarely, if ever, do they think of volunteers when it comes to cleaning up contaminated properties.

Tom Testwuide would agree. Born and raised in Sheboygan, Testwuide ran a malting business for 30 years before being approached about revitalizing the old Mirro aluminum facility in Manitowoc. The facility had closed down and the company had gone bankrupt, leaving a big hole in the community.

Like most people, Testwuide wasn't thinking about the Department of Natural Resources and volunteering when he pieced together his business plan to turn the Mirro plant around. One meeting with Annette Weissbach, however, helped change that.

Weissbach works as a hydrogeologist for the DNR's Remediation and Redevelopment Program. The RR Program encourages communities and businesses to voluntarily clean up contaminated properties, called "brownfields," as a way to not only protect the environment but to also reinvigorate local economies.

Testwuide says Weissbach gave him a vision beyond a simple environmental assessment of the land.

"[Weissbach] gave us terrific guidance – she gave us the entire scoop for the property, which to us made sense," Testwuide says. "It had been in use since 1959, so we wanted to look at the whole property, which being a businessman is something you always want to do, build from the foundation up."

With Weissbach consulting, Testwuide's team decided to seek out the state's voluntary party liability exemption (VPLE). Created in the 1990s, the VPLE provides an exemption from future environmental liability so long as an individual, business or government conducts a proper cleanup under state law.

Once the party completes the cleanup with DNR oversight, they receive a Certificate of Completion, which not only helps the current owner but can also be used by any future owners of the land.

"It's an excellent tool for private parties looking for that DNR stamp-of-approval," said Weissbach. "In many cases, the certificate can make the deal for developers or businesses."

Bruce Keyes echoes that sentiment. A brownfields attorney with Foley and Lardner law offices in Milwaukee, Keyes has worked on numerous transactions involving contaminated properties, and currently serves on the DNR's Brownfields Study Group, a statewide advisory task force.

"The VPLE provides a level of certainty, and clearly resolves the question of ‘What is clean enough?'" Keyes says. "The environmental contamination world is inherently gray, but VPLE makes it black and white. It's not a good fit for every deal, but when it's a good fit, it's a great fit."

He adds that, in bigger real estate transactions with conservative, risk averse clients, sometimes the VPLE provides the perfect answer.

"If we're the buyer – we want VPLE," adds Keyes.

Apparently so do a lot of other individuals. Since 1995, when the Department of Natural Resources issued the first Certificate of Completion, 117 other public or private parties have received the certificate. Even better, another 116 have applied for one and are in the cleanup pipeline.

Testwuide thankfully counts himself among the former group. In 2010, he bought and reopened the former Mirro manufacturing facility as Skana Aluminum. With cleanup approval from the Department of Natural Resources and the Certificate of Completion in hand, Testwuide today employs 120 people, with about half of those workers coming from the previous defunct facility. A big reason for that success, he says, is due to his partnership with the Department of Natural Resources.

"I gained a lot of confidence in what the Department of Natural Resources had to offer," said Testwuide. "We trusted [Weissbach's] judgment –and this is before I put any money into the operation. It helped me know how much the cost of the investigation and cleanup would be, so I could budget for it, and [in the end] it helped to know we had a clean piece of property."

So what would he say to anyone interested in purchasing a contaminated property? Testwuide says he'd be happy to volunteer again – to talk, to encourage. Business owner to business owner.

"You should consider the Department of Natural Resources as a consulting organization," Testwuide contends. "Remediation is often not cheap, but if you play it right, if you work with them versus being adversarial, they'll give you a reasonable timetable and you can get things done.

"This is the way business and government work together, not the way they talk about it on TV."

Andrew Savagian is the DNR's public affairs manager for the South Central Region and the Air, Waste and RR Division.

Samples of voluntary cleanup successes

Tom Testwuide and Skana Aluminum are far from alone in singing the praises of the DNR's voluntary cleanup efforts – to date 117 parties have received a VPLE Certificate of Completion, with another 116 in line. A few of the brightest and best are listed below.

Photo of Plexus factory © DNR File Photo
Plexus World Headquarters, Neenah.
© DNR File Photo

  • Stadium Business Park, West Milwaukee – A history of foundry production pre-dating World War II casts a long shadow on this southeast Wisconsin brownfield. After the owner, Ampco Metals, declared bankruptcy in 2003, the site became an unwanted eyesore for the neighborhood. Thanks to the VPLE and state and federal funding assistance, private developers took on the property, cleaned it up, and today the site is home to 10 light industrial businesses employing more than 450 people.
  • Plexus World Headquarters, Neenah – Working with the Plexus Corporation and the city of Neenah, Department of Natural Resources provided VPLE and funding assistance to help redevelop an old downtown paper mill into the corporation's new world headquarters, creating and retaining more than 370 jobs.
  • AxleTech International, Oshkosh – This axle and suspension manufacturing firm purchased a 600,000-square-foot facility located along the Fox River in Oshkosh, utilized the VPLE and became the 100th voluntary cleanup success story for the state in 2011.
  • We Energies, Glendale – Thanks to the VPLE, We Energies partnered with the Department of Natural Resources to pull 10 leaking underground storage tanks, remove contaminated soil and demolish a hazardous waste storage facility. Today, the site houses one of We Energies' service centers.
  • North Barstow (Phoenix Park) Redevelopment, Eau Claire – Once an old gas plant, this 100-year-old brownfield is now buzzing with activity, including the Royal Credit Union and other businesses employing more than 250 people, a portion of the Chippewa Valley Bike Trail and an 11,000-square-foot park pavilion that hosts the Eau Claire farmers' market.
  • Photo of trolley and buildings © DNR File Photo
    Harbor Park, Kenosha.
    © DNR File Photo

    Charter Films, Superior – The VPLE was key in the cleanup of this older industrial site in Superior, proving that the VPLE works in both rural and urban communities. Old PCB-containing transformers and leaking underground storage tanks were removed, which allowed Charter Films to add new jobs and complete several expansions.
  • Trolley Square, Appleton – Yes, even local governments can use the voluntary party exemption, as the city of Appleton did in dealing with this contaminated site, which required significant cleanup after a century of industrial activity. Today, Trolley Square exists where dilapidated Quonset huts once stood, along with a river walk, restaurant, wine store, catering business and a refurbished Birney Streetcar trolley.
  • Harbor Park, Kenosha – One of the more famous cleanups in Wisconsin, this old American Motors Corporation site covered nearly 70 acres of prime Lake Michigan shoreline, blocking public access and limiting the city's urban renewal. Along with other state and federal assistance, the VPLE helped clear the way for a lakeshore rejuvenation, with museums, trails, housing and a trolley that links to train service for Chicago and Milwaukee.