Wasted Places: Recession worsens brownfields backlog in WisconsinOAK CREEK -- Sarah Preciado, a lifelong resident of the Carrollville neighborhood, remembers how it was once a bustling place. Her great-grandfather was the first Mexican worker at the glue factory that was across Fifth Avenue. Her grandfather, who planted the pear and peach trees at her house, worked there too.
By: Kate Golden, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Rivertowns.net
OAK CREEK -- Sarah Preciado, a lifelong resident of the Carrollville neighborhood, remembers how it was once a bustling place. Her great-grandfather was the first Mexican worker at the glue factory that was across Fifth Avenue. Her grandfather, who planted the pear and peach trees at her house, worked there too.
But the glue factory is long gone, along with a chemical plant, aluminum smelter and other factories from the past century. Now dilapidated buildings in overgrown lots sprawl across 260 acres, where the soil and groundwater are polluted with arsenic, chromium, lead and other chemicals, and some fences gape from vandals’ gashes.
Preciado said the abandoned properties have blighted her neighborhood.
“Now I worry about my kids,” she said. “This area has changed so much.”
Known by its historic name, Carrollville, the site -- on Lake Michigan’s edge, just south of Milwaukee -- is one of the largest of Wisconsin’s brownfields, properties that are abandoned or underused because of contamination or the threat of it.
Contamination at brownfields usually doesn’t rise to the level of Superfund sites, so they don’t get Superfund-level attention. Still, they may harm people and the environment, reduce tax revenue, keep communities from developing and attract vandals and dumping.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are anywhere from 450,000 to 1 million brownfields nationwide. But that count is far from firm -- EPA’s database lists just 17,000 records -- and the agency doesn’t track the nation’s progress on brownfields.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates there are 10,000 brownfields in Wisconsin, with a disproportionate number in poor and rural neighborhoods -- the places least likely to have the resources to clean them up.
Here, in what’s sometimes called the industrial rust belt, many of these sites date back to the early 1900s, during the state’s early manufacturing history.
But while the state has made some progress with the backlog in the past two decades, the situation may be worsening.
A “startling” number of plant closings during the recent recession, 109 since 2009, has created “an entirely new generation of brownfields,” according to a 2011 DNR grant application for federal brownfields funding.
DNR’s brownfields chief, Darsi Foss, said progress is being made. The agency has a new initiative to deal with newly closing plants before they become 20-year-old abandoned sites.
But it will take decades to find and clean up all the brownfields.
“Resources are tough to come by right now,” she said.
Investigation reveals flaws in system
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism was among six nonprofit news organizations probing federal and state agencies’ handling of brownfields.
The investigation, coordinated by the Investigative News Network, found that despite more than $1.5 billion in federal grants and loans doled out over 19 years, brownfields cleanups nationwide remain hobbled by limited funds, a lack of federal oversight, endless waits for approvals and dense bureaucratic processes that make it difficult for poor and sparsely populated neighborhoods to compete against larger and middle-class communities with the means to figure them out.
In a written response, the EPA said the program “is not intended to address all of the brownfield sites in the U.S.”
Federal data neither fully assess the problem nor how Wisconsin compares to other states. The EPA generally only tracks the brownfields it has funded, leaving out thousands of sites that have been identified by state and local governments.
The EPA doesn’t audit the data, which are reported by grant recipients.
A Center analysis found that even the limited information in EPA’s database is riddled with errors and omissions. For instance, many of the latitudes and longitudes described locations in China and Kyrgyzstan.
The Office of the Inspector General criticized EPA’s “lack of oversight and reliance on environmental professionals’ self-certifications” in a 2011 report. That approach means contamination at sites might not be fully assessed, which could lead to “improper decisions about appropriate uses of brownfields properties.”
“Ultimately, threats to human health and the environment could go unrecognized,” the report said.
Factories left contamination
From the early 1900s until the 1980s, manufacturing at Carrollville included not only the glue and gelatin plant but a dye and chemical factory, a fertilizer factory, an aluminum smelter, a distillery, a coal-tar factory and a wood-treating site.
The problems have included what was known as the “arsenic landfill” -- most of which was removed by the EPA, though some arsenic remains; toxic coal tar that was oozing out of the ground; various cancer-causing chemicals, both vaporous and persistent; and unknown chemical compounds with uncertain health effects. At one point, a monitoring well installed by DNR dissolved, DNR project manager Eric Amadi said.
The city of Oak Creek has bought some of the land and plans to transform the space. But its vision of green space and mixed use is years away.
Hard to get a handle on sites
Carrollville’s contamination was discovered after its heyday, in the 1980s, when workers discovered a disturbing red icicle -- a legacy of the former dye factory -- on the waterfront. Yet Foss did not learn of the site until 2007.
“I have no way of knowing the percentage of brownfields” that have been cleaned up, Foss said. “And I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It is just not possible.”
While the federal government has required Wisconsin to inventory all its brownfields, the state hasn’t done so because the mandate wasn’t funded.
The state has cobbled together funding to find and clean up these sites from a dizzying array of sources: A state guide for brownfields developers lists 16 possible pots of state or federal grant money, four loan programs and eight tax incentives.
The problems are daunting.
The Fabry Glove mitten factory in Green Bay, in the middle of a residential neighborhood, is known to have contaminated soil, groundwater and indoor air with perchloroethylene. The Mankowski factory in Kenosha, where Chrysler engines were made, has soil and water that’s contaminated with volatile organic chemicals. It’s next to an elementary school.
The various chemicals at those plants are known to cause cancer and affect the respiratory and nervous systems, liver, kidneys and skin.
New generation of brownfields
Responding to what it called “the tide of new brownfield properties,” the DNR established a Wisconsin Plant Recovery Initiative in 2010. It has funded environmental assessments at 17 plants; given grants to Kenosha, Milwaukee and New Holstein to do similar work; and responded to 85 plant closings.
In Brokaw, Wausau Paper closed its paper mill in Brokaw this spring. It was the biggest employer in this Marathon County town of 164, once employing about 450 people. Now the plant is mothballed, its machinery sold. A new owner, Niagara Worldwide, hopes to sell it.
It’s not officially a brownfield. But the paper industry uses a variety of toxic chemicals, and the mill was open for 113 years, long before modern pollution controls came about.
Brokaw residents have been forced in recent years to bring in water from nearby Wausau because the mill contaminated the public groundwater supply with sulfite liquors decades earlier.
Village President Jeffrey Weisenberger, who worked at the mill for 35 years, was one of the last four maintenance workers to be laid off. From his house, he can see the idle plant on one edge of town. He misses the noise, the traffic, the smoke.
The local gas station has closed -- even the tavern.
“Now it’s a ghost town,” he said.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.