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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Within three years the dilapidated Mobile Blasting site in west Milwaukee was restored into the Stadium Business Center (see below). © DNR Remediation & Redevelopment Bureau
Within three years the dilapidated Mobile Blasting site in west Milwaukee was restored into the Stadium Business Center.

© DNR Remediation & Redevelopment Bureau

August 2006

Caring for the "orphans"

Years of effort and millions of dollars help restore abandoned contaminated properties.

Marie Stewart, Dick Kalnicky, Robert Strous, Jr. and Andrew Savagian


State-funded response cleanups
A quick response and a long-term community investment
Working together
Even the right action can cause big problems
A Superior cleanup
Protecting rivers and wildlife
From refrigerators to riverfront recreation
A diamond in the rough
For more information

Chemicals are widely used for a range of everyday activities from curing disease to providing fuels and easing household chores. Common sense and a host of regulations provide guidelines for safely using and disposing of these compounds, but it wasn't that long ago that common practice for handling dangerous chemical residues was much different – out of sight, out of mind. "Down the drain" backyard dumping led to national catastrophes like Love Canal in New York, which in turn led to cleanup funds like the national Superfund and state Clean Sweeps.

Although a lot of the dumping was done in ignorance, it left a legacy of contaminated sites. Unfortunately, it's not always clear who is accountable today for yesterday's actions. In many cases, the owners of polluted properties have died, gone bankrupt or are unwilling or unable to accept responsibility for soil and water contamination. "Orphan" sites lie vacant for years, languishing while local governments struggle to find enterprising people who see enough opportunity to risk the costs of cleaning up such eyesores.

The DNR's State-Funded Response Program in the Remediation and Redevelopment Bureau provides staff and money to help turn blighted properties around. "State-led projects don't often create headlines," said Robert Strous, Jr., the bureau's fiscal and information technology section chief. "The state steps in at orphaned sites when no one else will. We expect the cleanup benefits to last for generations."

State-funded response cleanups

State-led cleanups of contaminated properties are partially or fully funded using money from the State Environmental Fund. Since these funds were first offered 20 years ago, more than 200 orphaned sites across Wisconsin have been addressed. "We don't just help the environment," said Strous. "We help communities get their contaminated wells back online, provide clean drinking water, and help get properties back into productive use, which benefits local economies."

Cleaned-up and ready for commerce: The Stadium Business Center in west Milwaukee. © DNR Remediation & Redevelopment Bureau
Cleaned-up and ready for commerce: The Stadium Business Center in west Milwaukee.

© DNR Remediation & Redevelopment Bureau

During the last 12 years, the Department of Natural Resources has spent nearly $60 million on state-led cleanup projects. Some projects require millions of dollars and many years to clean up. Other efforts are simpler and cheaper: A few thousand dollars can fund an investigation to find the "responsible parties" (or "RPs") to pay for all or a portion of the cleanup costs. Since 1992, the program has recovered more than $16 million from RPs, or nearly one-fourth of the total costs incurred.

Communities are often willing to form partnerships with the state and individuals to aid cleanups. "We're in it for the long haul," Strous said. "We're committed to helping communities turn these sites around."

A quick response and a long-term community investment

The first state Environmental Repair Fund, established in 1984, went a long way toward cleaning up contaminated orphan properties.

One of those sites popped up in the tourism-friendly city of Minocqua in northern Wisconsin. Routine sampling of drinking water in 1984 found a municipal well was contaminated with perchloroethylene, a chemical often used by the drycleaning industry. In those days, drycleaners often sprayed used "perc" on gravel parking lots to reduce dust, or they simply dumped the residue, eventually contaminating area soil and groundwater.

The contaminated city well was the community's only operating source of drinking water. DNR responders quickly arranged to install an extraction well to intercept and treat the contaminated plume while further investigations determined the source of the perc.

Cleaning up the sources of contamination was a bigger problem. Perc can persist in soil for a long time. Excavating soil was not a good option because the area where contamination was highest was located on the shoreline of Lake Minocqua. The owner could not afford the high cleanup cost. DNR investigators conducted field studies and pilot tests, eventually installing a vapor extraction system to draw the perc out of the soil and trap it in carbon filters.

Similar to cleanups at many other sites, there was no overnight cure for Minocqua's perc problem. More than 20 years later, treatment continues with support from the State Environmental Fund, which covers long-term operating and maintenance costs to protect the community's drinking water.

Working together

Relationships between responsible parties and the Department of Natural Resources can be very contentious on large cleanups. They become even more complex, costly and lengthy if the sites become part of the national Superfund process. Active partnerships between RP's and DNR staff offer a more productive model for restoring contaminated land.

A good example of such a partnership occurred on the Holtz Krause Landfill project in Wausau in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "Our success in cleaning up that landfill is directly related to the willingness of the DNR folks to partner with the responsible parties in investigating and addressing community concerns," said John Robinson, former Wausau mayor and chair of the Holtz Krause Steering Committee. "By assisting with funding the remedial investigation, and by being flexible about how we approached the project, the 57-acre landfill was capped, soccer fields were incorporated into the final design, and more than 1,300 different parties helped pay for the cleanup."

Even the right action can cause big problems

Sometimes doing the right thing causes environmental contamination, too. In 1990, local fire departments responded to a large shed fire at the Dennis Dwyer farm in the town of Beloit in Rock County. Approximately 90,000 gallons of water were used to put out the fire. The building contained commercial quantities of pesticides, foam insulation and other chemicals. Within days after the fire was extinguished, several local homeowners with private wells contacted DNR offices when they noticed a strange taste in their drinking water.

Testing showed the wells were contaminated with high levels of pesticides, including 19 different agricultural chemicals and volatile organic compounds likely carried to wells in the water used to put out the fire. Chemical levels exceeded safe drinking water standards, and homeowners were advised not to use their wells; emergency water supplies were provided. After the wells were abandoned, homeowners were connected to a new, uncontaminated community well paid for by Dwyer.

Though Dwyer was technically the responsible party, he couldn't cover costs for remedial actions in such a large area of contaminated groundwater and soil. State-funded response staff stepped in to assist. A remedial system was designed to pump and treat the contaminated groundwater with ultraviolet (UV) oxidation technology, which uses hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light to break down the chemicals. The system proved highly effective, treating more than four million gallons of groundwater to below chemical detection limits and removing virtually all chemical contamination before the water was injected back into the water table.

A Superior cleanup

Materials spilled or dumped on the ground can run off or be washed "away" by rain or snow – which means the materials have moved elsewhere. Runoff from drainpipes contaminates rivers and lakes, especially the sediment that lies beneath the water. Contaminated sediment can remain in place for years, degrading aquatic life and water quality, and curtailing swimming and boating activities.

This murky threat troubled Newton Creek, a stream located in the city limits of Superior and flowing approximately 1.5 miles to Hog Island Inlet. The inlet is a 17-acre shallow waterway that empties into the St. Louis River and eventually into Lake Superior. Both waterways provide recreational space and fishing opportunities for local residents.

DNR studies in the early 1990s showed sediments and floodplain soils in the creek and inlet contained petroleum by-products (polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs) and lead. The Douglas County Health Department closed Hog Island Inlet to swimming due to health concerns over the elevated levels of contaminants.

Cleanup at Newton Creek started with reducing wastewater discharges from Murphy Oil USA, Inc., a refinery located near the headwaters of the creek. The company agreed to make improvements and reduce contaminants in the upstream part of Newton Creek, as well as contribute $200,000 toward cleaning up Hog Island Inlet. Under a broad public-private partnership, state-funded response contributed approximately a third of the $6.2 million needed to remove contaminated sediments from the inlet. Federal funds came from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Great Lakes National Program Office. Partners included the city of Superior, Douglas County, Department of Natural Resources, EPA, Murphy Oil, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, and Enbridge Energy. The massive project removed 60,000 tons of contaminated sediment from Hog Island Inlet and another 940 tons from the lower part of Newton Creek. More than 3,200 truckloads of contaminated sediment were hauled to a local landfill and buried in a lined cell. The "No Swimming" signs along the waterways were taken down in November 2005.

Protecting rivers and wildlife

Located just 400 feet east of the confluence of the Black and Mississippi rivers and adjacent to the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the Town of Onalaska Landfill accepted municipal and industrial wastes from the late 1960s until 1980. Liquids and decomposing wastes leached from the aging site, contaminating soil and groundwater with industrial solvents and a floating layer of petroleum hydrocarbons.

A private well nearby was polluted, and several other private wells were in the path of the contaminated groundwater plume. The threat to neighboring rivers and a wildlife refuge also warranted action. The orphaned site was placed on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) in 1984, which gave the state access to federal staff and funds to address contamination. The residential well was replaced and EPA capped the landfill. Federal and state contracts paid to install a groundwater extraction and treatment system. Thanks to the partnership, Wisconsin's Environmental Fund needed to cover only about 50 percent of the construction costs.

Soil for the landfill cap was taken from a nearby "borrow pit." Then the Environmental Fund solved two local problems at once: The borrow pit was refilled with sediments dredged from the nearby Dodge Chute of the Black River, which opened up a navigable waterway.

In 2004, the Department of Natural Resources assumed full responsibility to maintain the site for several years. Total cleanup costs stand at $10 million to date.

From refrigerators to riverfront recreation

The QuicFrez site is a four-acre property hugging the east branch of the Fond du Lac River near that city's downtown. For years the site was used to manufacture furniture and refrigerators, and for storage.

The city acquired the property in August 2001 and planned to raze the aging buildings, but not before arsonists burned part of the structures and a section of a retaining wall collapsed into the river, contaminating the water with petroleum products, chlorinated solvents, and other wastes. DNR spill responders were called in to contain petroleum wastes while staff from EPA's Removals Program helped remove a 200-foot section of the failed retaining wall.

The state-funded response program entered the picture to start the cleanup process. By January 2006, the first phase of preparing the site for cleanup included installing a river wall, dredging soft sediments and placing big rocks referred to as "rock armor" on the bottom to prevent scouring as the river flow increased once sediments were removed. The second phase, scheduled for this summer, will install layers of treatment equipment (dubbed a "lasagna" design) that will operate for two years. In the "lasagna" process, electrodes will put an electrical charge through layers of iron filings between zones saturated with polluted groundwater. The electrodes will force contaminated groundwater through the treatment walls to degrade the contamination.

According to DNR's project manager, Jennie Easterly, Fond du Lac officials have formed an excellent partnership with the state and are using a variety of redevelopment tools to return the former QuicFrez site to economic use. In addition to its own resources, the city received a $130,000 Sustainable Urban Development Zone grant; a $50,000 Greenspace grant from the Department of Natural Resources and a $318,000 Brownfields grant from the Department of Commerce. The DNR also provided an estimated $1.9 million in Environmental Fund money to build and operate the "lasagna" remedy. The city qualified for a local government exemption to limit its liability for site cleanup.

Local residents, the business community and the Department of Natural Resources look forward to redeveloping the site in 2009 for residential use, open green space and a riverfront recreation trail.

A diamond in the rough

Right across the street from new housing and only a few blocks away from I-94 and Miller Park, the former Mobile Blasting site in West Milwaukee certainly had "location, location, location" written all over it, but the site's nasty contamination history and dilapidated buildings discouraged restoration. Fortunately, the city of West Milwaukee and developers Real Estate Recycling saw potential. They went to work securing funds to investigate and clean up the contamination in cooperation with the State-Funded Response Program, the state Department of Commerce and the Brownfields Grant Program.

The Environmental Fund provided $1.8 million to assist with investigation and cleanup. The city kicked in more than $300,000, developers added additional funds, and the partnership also netted a $390,000 Commerce Brownfields grant.

Walking past the site now, no one would guess what it looked like prior to 2002. The new Stadium Business Center – a 44,000 square-foot office building and warehouse — now houses six businesses and employs about 130 people. The property value has jumped from about $300,000 to approximately $2.5 million. To the delight of the community, the cleanup and redevelopment of Mobile Blasting has fueled more restoration in the immediate area and spawned new businesses and restaurants.

"We are still discovering orphaned sites every year," said Robert Strous. "Communities willing to pick up the phone and contact DNR's Remediation & Redevelopment program staff can begin to turn those serious problems into community assets."

For more information

All four authors work for DNR's Remediation and Redevelopment Program. Marie Stewart is the program's contracting coordinator. Dick Kalnicky is a grant and budget specialist. Robert Strous, Jr. is the fiscal and information technology section chief. Andrew Savagian is the outreach education specialist.