October 31, 2010

Toxic legacy: Century-old tar plumes under Lake Superior stir health fears — and a cleanup could be years away

Toxic coal tar at this downtown Ashland site is covered by layers of blackened sawdust and wood from the now-defunct lumber company, riprap and other trash. For years after the sawmill here closed, the area was a public dumping ground. But it’s the tar below -- a mixture of compounds that are known to cause cancer -- that got it on the Superfund list. Kate Golden/WCIJ

Audio slideshow: The neighbors

Pep and Joe Kabasa grew up here. Now they live surrounded on three sides by a Superfund site. Click the photo to watch in a new page.

This story on Wisconsin Public Television

In collaboration with the Center, public television reporter Art Hackett produced a two-part series for In Wisconsin on the Ashland site. Read transcripts or watch them online: Part 1, Part 2

Interactive map

MGPs in Wisconsin

Old manufactured gas plants are all over Wisconsin. Find the ones in your area, and see who’s responsible for cleaning them up.

ASHLAND — A few times in his 18 years as an Ashland wastewater treatment plant employee, when a water main broke, John Radloff would find himself wading in oily water. The slick, which came up every time the plant employees dug down, looked and smelled like heavy used oil. It got on their clothes, boots and skin. It was a nuisance. But they worked at a wastewater plant. They were used to foul stuff.

“We often wondered if this was anything that could harm us in the long run, but we don’t know,” says Radloff, who worked at the plant until 1992. That’s when the city decided the industrial waste below would make upgrading the plant too hazardous and boarded it up.

Today the area around the old plant is the lush green expanse of Kreher Park, located in the center of this city of 8,453 people. It’s also a Superfund site known to cover a plume of thousands of gallons of gooey black tar and millions of gallons of contaminated groundwater.

It’s a legacy of Ashland’s industrial past — in the middle of its downtown Lake Superior waterfront — that is still years away from being cleaned up.

In September, after 21 years of state and federal scrutiny, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its final plan for a cleanup estimated to cost at least $100 million.

No wading, swimming, boating or anchoring allowed here.

Toxic tars from the Lake Superior District Power Co. manufactured gas plant in downtown Ashland -- shown here probably in the 1930s -- have contaminated the groundwater and soil below. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

According to state and federal officials, the primary culprit for the tar was a manufactured gas plant, which operated here from 1885 to 1947 atop a bluff overlooking the park. This finding is disputed by Xcel Energy, which has been named potentially responsible for the cleanup. Xcel is the holding company of Northern States Power-Wisconsin, which acquired the gas plant in 1986 when it bought the Lake Superior District Power Co. Utility officials say some of the pollution may be from old lumber operations.

The Ashland site is by far the thorniest of its kind in Wisconsin — both because of the difficulty in cleaning it up, and in finding someone to pay for it.

Thousands of manufactured gas plants like Ashland’s dotted the nation’s urban landscape for 150 years. MGPs, as they’re often now called, heated coal or fuel oil to make gas that lit streets and heated buildings. The waste they produced, known as coal tar, is a complex, toxic mixture of hundreds or thousands of chemicals such as benzene and napthalene. Every major community had one, according to Allen Hatheway, a Missouri geological engineer who is an MGP expert. He says the Ashland site is “monstrously polluted” compared to others in Wisconsin.

Sixty years after the gasworks gave way to electricity-generating power plants, not all of them have been found, and just nine of the 44 sites that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources knows about have been cleaned up. They are in every region of the state. The tar they dumped in waterways, soil and underground tanks doesn’t break down easily and is known to cause cancer.

But assigning blame decades after the plants shut down can be difficult.

Frank Koehn, an area activist whose petition got the Ashland site on the Superfund National Priority List, would like to see Xcel pay for the cleanup. “They run around here giving out 500 checks to fire departments and PTAs and what have you, and that’s good. But I think on this issue they should have taken responsibility.”

Xcel says it’s not that simple. “We’ve recognized that we’re 100 percent responsible for the waste and the contamination on top of the bluff,” says David Donovan, the company’s regulatory policy manager. “But we believe that there’s others responsible for the contamination at other parts of the site, and we believe that they should have to pay for that.”

Ashland City Council Member Pep Kabasa, 63, and her husband, Joe, 70, have lived most of their lives on the bluff, a few hundred feet from the old gas plant. They remember Pete Lorenzo, the jolly gas-maker who would let kids in to see the machinery, and the goldfish pond outside the plant.

As children, they swam in Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay where tar balls still sometimes appear and, given a northeast wind, a slick still comes up. They played on the tar pit below the bluff. Some would light the tar pond on fire. Others, including Joe, even chewed the tar, since it was cheaper than gum.

Now the Kabasa home is surrounded on three sides by a Superfund site. Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church and School are on the site. Two artesian wells below the bluff are boarded up, as is the old wastewater treatment plant at the bottom of the hill. Boating, wading and swimming are forbidden in the 16 acres of Chequamegon Bay with contaminated sediments.

Every now and then, a whiff of tar, like somebody paving a driveway, wafts over from the old gasworks, where Xcel is running a test project pumping and treating contaminated water from the aquifer below.

Joe Kabasa got cancer as a young man, and Pep, who was then a young bride of 17, nursed him through harsh radiation treatments. Her father died of cancer, her mother and sister have had double mastectomies, and she has had tumors. She wonders whether the tar she once thought innocuous is to blame.

As the Superfund process revealed the contamination all around her, she pressed the experts with questions they could not answer: “How long does it take you to die from whatever this is?”

“I want an answer, because I have grandchildren, and my children live here,” she says. “I’m the caregiver for everybody, and I feel good, but … cancer scares me. And if this is the cause, get rid of it.”

Health answers are unsatisfying

Chemicals of concern

Source: U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: A group of more than 100 chemicals formed when coal, oil and gas, garbage or other organic substances burn incompletely. They’re usually found as a mixture, such as soot. Found in coal tar, crude oil, creosote and roofing tar; used in medicines, dyes, plastics and pesticides.

PAHs are found in coal tar, crude oil, creosote, and roofing tar, but a few are used in medicines or to make dyes, plastics, and pesticides. Learn more
LINK: Health assessment for the Ashland site

Coal tar hasn’t always been considered a health problem. In the early 20th century, tuberculosis patients in cities sometimes sat near manufactured gas plants to breathe in their supposedly healthful vapors. People have inhaled fumes from coal-tar potions for bronchitis, and put them on skin to cure rashes.

Yet the nasty effects of coal tar and related compounds on people have been documented since 1775, when an English doctor, Sir Percivall Pott, wrote about the cancers that chimney sweeps were getting.

Nonetheless, experts still can’t definitively lay the blame for any one cancer on the gas plant. Instead they say the exposures to tar that some Ashlanders got for decades are far beyond what’s recommended.

When the compounds in the tars are combined with sunlight, they are “a very potent carcinogen” on skin, says Kim Bro, a health risk analyst who conducted the site’s first health risk assessment in 1995 for the state.

Joe Kabasa dismisses the health concerns. He sees the green park as a great improvement over the site’s smoky, trash-strewn past, and he has known many a long-lived bluff-dweller. He cannot believe this place is toxic.

“I say leave it alone,” he advises.

Don’t say ‘coal tar.’ The first draft for the signs, in the 1990s, was more explicit about the source of the contamination in Ashland’s downtown waterfront. “Hazardous coal tar on bottom.” But Xcel Energy “had a strong reaction” to the term, according to Kim Bro, a former state official who developed the signage -- so he changed it to “oil & tar substance.” “I figured that still said to the public what they needed to know,” Bro says. Kate Golden/WCIJ

Safer than it used to be

In fact, the site is much safer now, say Bro and others. The last open tar seep at Kreher Park was fenced off in 1996 and capped in 2001 when the tar began to spread beyond the fence. Layers of grass, dirt, sawdust and wood now keep people from touching the tar or breathing its fumes at the park.

Along the water, yellow-and-black signs give warnings: “No wading, swimming, boating or anchoring. Sediments contain hazardous substances. Should this oil and tar substance come into contact with skin, wash off immediately with soap and warm water.”

“I’ve gone there and seen people who don’t even see the signs,” says Bro, who developed the warnings in the mid-1990s. “People say, ‘I’ve seen that, and isn’t it inappropriate for a public agency just to have signs up, and not to have a barrier?’

“Well, nobody thought it would be 15 years,” he says.

The Superfund site’s 16-acre cove of contaminated sediments is filled with coal tar -- and slabs of wood from the sawmill that operated here in the early 20th century. Picking the antique wood is still a popular activity in the area, though it is not allowed right here. Kate Golden/WCIJ

The Superfund sediments are in a cove, bounded by a marina and jetty that jut into the lake. On the other side of the jetty, teenagers do cannonballs off a dock, boats launch, and toddlers make sandcastles on the shore. There, the beach is sand, not the strange, black, spongy material a stone’s throw away.

Apparently the contamination is very localized, because DNR sampling has never detected any tar compounds at this beach.

Still, leaving the layer of tar underground isn’t a viable option, because these contaminants won’t go away on their own, say experts — including those at Xcel Energy, who formerly pushed for capping the site.

“We thought it was, at the time, more cost-effective,” Donovan says of the capping proposal. “When you look at the site in its totality, there’s an argument to be made that we should try to get rid of as much of that material as we possibly can.”

Xcel has already spent $19 million on the project.

The Superfund site lies in the path of the city’s planned expansion of its marina and continued transition from a once-busy industrial port to one based on tourism. But development means digging, which could expose people to the toxic tars once more.

EPA has developed a multi-phase plan for cleanup. It includes removing thousands of tons of tarry soil, and roasting some at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit until it’s safe to put back. A metal wall will be built to keep any remaining underground tar from reaching the lake. The groundwater in two aquifers will be pumped, treated and discharged to the lake.

The trickiest and most expensive part will be removing the contaminated sediments from Lake Superior. Xcel will be allowed to try dredging them out, which would be cheaper. But if that pilot test doesn’t satisfy EPA, that part of the bay will be drained dry, and the sediments removed.

John Radloff worked at Ashland’s wastewater treatment plant for 18 years, until the city moved the plant. Health experts say the exposure he and other workers got to the toxic contamination there is far greater than what would be allowed today. Kate Golden/WCIJ

‘It concerns all of us’

John Radloff remembers that many of his coworkers got cancer before they died. But it is George Grosjean’s story that bothers him the most.

Grosjean and his wife sued Xcel Energy in 2002 over health problems from his exposure to contaminants from the MGP site, according to Xcel’s financial filings. They settled out of court before the 2004 trial date. George Grosjean is now dead, and neither Xcel nor Diane Grosjean would discuss the case, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

Radloff, 62, has already had skin cancer. But he is red-headed and fair-skinned, and worked in the sun on a farm as a kid. He can’t point the finger at the gas plant.

But he wonders whether his past exposure might catch up with him.

“It concerns me. It concerns my wife. It concerns all of us that worked down there,” Radloff says.

If Xcel paid, Grosjean’s case wouldn’t be the first time a utility paid for sicknesses blamed on exposure to gas plant waste.

An Illinois jury ordered the Central Illinois Public Service Co. to pay $3.2 million to four Taylorville, Ill., families whose children had come down with a rare nervous system cancer after an allegedly botched MGP cleanup.

Court records showed the utility’s initial 1987 cleanup attempt had not gone well. It was dusty and windy. A resident was hospitalized with convulsions and nausea and diagnosed with an acute attack from a toxic cause. Truck drivers removing the waste complained of nausea and were told to wear respirators, but area residents weren’t warned or relocated, court documents show.

DNR Hydrogeologist Jamie Dunn has spent about two decades managing the investigation and cleanup of Ashland’s coal tar site. Kate Golden/WCIJ

The $100 million question: Who pays?

A 1987 incident that got Ashland’s MGP site on the Department of Natural Resource’s radar seemed, at the time, like something much smaller.

“Jim called to inform me that while digging a trench of the site of old NSP coal gas plant in Ashland, they hit a tar pit,” states the handwritten report to the DNR. “It is approximately 15 feet in diameter but they do not know how deep.”

Schroeder Lumber Co., possibly 1930s. Courtesy of Wisconsin DNR.

Xcel removed about 15 truckloads of tarry soil, tiny compared to what’s under there. Several years later, the DNR appointed hydrogeologist Jamie Dunn to manage the site investigation. Like others, he began his work under the assumption that the contamination below the bluff had come from the Schroeder Lumber Co., which had operated there from 1901 to 1931.

“I went into it looking for a creosote operation,” says Dunn. (Creosote, distilled from coal tar and used in wood treatment, looks and smells very similar.)

But years of investigation eventually persuaded Dunn and other officials that the manufactured gas plant was a likelier source.

“We’ve found no evidence, and nor do we see in the forensics and the analytical info that we’ve gathered from the contaminants that are here anything other than MGP waste,” Dunn says.

Many Ashlanders now consider the gruff, gravel-voiced Dunn the project’s saving grace — an official who talks straight with them. He has promised he will not retire until the cleanup is well on its way.

Dunn hired consultants in 1994 to sample the layers underneath Kreher Park and nearby waters and analyze the oily stuff’s chemical signature. They also dug back more than a century for clues in historical documents like fire insurance maps, company filings and Rail Commission records.

As the investigation proceeded, the state named Xcel as potentially responsible. The federal government will make the final decision on responsibility now that EPA has released its final site investigation and cleanup plan, known as the record of decision.

Xcel points finger at others

But over the past 15 years, Xcel Energy has repeatedly denied responsibility for part of the waste downhill from its old plant.

The company has reserved the right to sue others, including the city of Ashland and owners of the railroads that once ran along the shoreline, for cleanup costs. Xcel still objects to the site being called an MGP site.

The utility’s consultants found evidence that Schroeder Lumber Co. made the mess at the bottom of the hill. They found witnesses who remembered lumber being dipped in the tar pits. They found chemicals consistent with wood treatment at the site that weren’t consistent with MGP waste. And they found Schroeder company documents saying the company planned to treat wood.

If Xcel can prove Schroeder contributed significant waste, it may have a case that the city of Ashland, which acquired Schroeder’s land, should pay for a chunk of the cleanup. Donovan says there’s evidence the city made the mess worse by digging up the contamination and pushing it into the bay to build the wastewater treatment plant there in the 1950s.

But old insurance maps and photographs did not show evidence of wood treatment facilities, according to Dunn. And many of the witnesses were children when Schroeder shut down.

“The state of Wisconsin’s feeling is, no significant wood treatment happened at Schroeder Lumber Co.,” Dunn says.

But investigators did discover an underground clay pipe. It ran down a ravine into an area that was originally Lake Superior before it was filled in and housed the lumber yard and now Kreher Park. The closer they got to the ravine, the more concentrated the underground tars were.

A wire probe up the pipe led to the gas plant.

Dunn says the pipe may have been built to comply with a 1902 Ashland health ordinance that required MGP waste to be conveyed underground rather than dumped into gullies.

Xcel Energy acquired Ashland’s gas utility, and its liabilities along with it. Now the old gas plant building is boarded up, and millions of gallons of contaminated groundwater are known to lie beneath it. An occasional whiff of tar floats by here, because Xcel is pumping and treating the groundwater in a pilot test. Kate Golden/WCIJ

Xcel now admits the pipe must have taken some plant waste down the ravine. But manager Donovan says he still believes “a rather extensive wood-treatment facility” contributed to the contamination. He argues that the amount of waste the plant produced “cannot be translated specifically to what’s down in Kreher Park or out underneath the bay.”

In the end, the federal government will decide who’s right. If Xcel disagrees, it likely will go to court.

And many in Ashland worry the city’s taxpayers will get stuck with a multimillion-dollar tab.

Even Xcel’s critics note that the company has contributed generously to the community. And it’s now paying three years’ salary for the Ashland city planning director. She is planning the transformation of the Superfund waters into a marina and the site into a tourist destination, and looking for grants to help pay for the cleanup.

But the city has been unsuccessful in attempts to extract a promise from Xcel that it will not sue.

Former mayor Ed Monroe, like many others, is frustrated by the pace of the site cleanup. Kate Golden/WCIJ

Superfund — The fund that isn’t

Ashlanders are tired of waiting, not knowing when the cleanup will start or who will foot the bill.

“We’ve really had no choice up to this point, you know. It’s been there longer than just about every resident in Ashland,” says Ed Monroe, a former mayor.

Part of the holdup is that the site has now been investigated twice. By 1998, the state had investigated and released a feasibility study, which outlined the problem and potential cleanup options.

Then activist Koehn successfully petitioned the EPA to evaluate the site for addition to the Superfund program. The Ashland site scored “very highly,” Dunn says.

Kathy Allen of the League of Women Voters, here serving pie for a political meeting. Kate Golden/WCIJ

“I don’t think everyone was coming from the standpoint of being good-faith,” reflects Koehn. “I think everyone was trying to save money. That was what I saw: that we need to take care of stockholders, that we need to take care of taxpayers, and how serious is this coal tar business? It’s been there forever.”

But many in Ashland came to rue Koehn’s petition — especially when they learned that Superfund is not a fund. The program lost its funding source in 1996. And it was only ever intended for orphaned messes, those without a responsible party.

“That was kind of upsetting, because everybody just thought there was lots of money in the Superfund,” says Kathy Allen, a League of Women Voters activist who helped facilitate public meetings. “I mean, think of it: ‘Superfund.’ ”

EPA took over managing the cleanup in 2002. The agency took another eight years to re-investigate the site and come up with a cleanup plan.

Activists are worn out from fighting. And everyone wants to see the waterfront become usable again.

“We’re a long ways away from the first shovel-load of coal tar coming out of the bay,” says Kim Bro, the former health-department official. “And that’s what everybody’s hoping for.”

  • La Mer

    Hi Kate Golden,
    Happy travels and best of luck with your Aussie gig. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your invaluable research and documentation work — beautiful gifts you have left for us here in Wisconsin to put to good use while stewarding this fair state’s water and wildlife, so unfairly treated…