Wasted Places is a collaborative investigation by six nonprofit newsrooms into federal and state programs designed to cleanup and redevelop polluted tracts known as brownfields.The project was coordinated by the Investigative News Network, and reported and written by the Connecticut Health Investigative Team, City Limits, Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and INN.
Stories from our collaborators: Wasted Places main page
National story: Slow, underfunded EPA program falls short in toxic site cleanups
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 five 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.
Despite living across the street from the complex her whole life, Preciado hadn’t heard much about the pollution there. Most of it is hidden behind greenery and fences; DNR project manager Eric Amadi guessed that was why there had been little public outcry.
At one end of the site, where the former Peter Cooper glue and Hynite fertilizer factories are, the present public risk from the chemicals is “indeterminate,” according to a 2008 state health consultation, “but limited field screening and the history of past industrial activities suggest substantial environmental contamination may be present.”
The report noted the presence of many physical hazards there and “well-worn footpaths” leading through holes in the fence. The biggest public health hazards were to trespassers.
“Kids were going in there after school to hang out,” Amadi said.
The problems in the entire complex 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, Amadi said.
The aquifer, which fortunately flows toward Lake Michigan and not toward public wells, will probably never be usable, according to DNR.
The land has been bought and sold and resold. Amadi is working with seven owners, who have displayed varying levels of interest in cleaning up the contamination.
The cleanup is progressing, to varying degrees at each site. Old fire insurance maps, corporate filings and other records have largely straightened out who is responsible.
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.
Four years after the state health assessment, grapevines have replaced some of the barbed wire, while the old Hynite factory on the hill is colorful with graffiti.
Parts of the site have been listed on the Internet as a point of interest for ghost hunters and urban spelunkers.
Across Fifth Avenue from the defunct Wabash Alloys aluminum smelter on a sunny August day, Milan “Mike” Zoric was painting the old Bender Park Pub. Like Preciado, he remembers this place booming decades ago. Unlike Preciado, he was betting the area would come back.
But three weeks later, Zoric was gone. Maria “Chayo” Cobian, who owns the building, said he was the second renter not to work out recently. Like Preciado, her cousin, Cobian is hoping the area will bounce back. She thought redeveloping the Carrollville site would help.
“I mean, look how ugly it is!” she said, gesturing toward the old smelter.
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.
That the site could evade the DNR brownfields chief for so long speaks to the overwhelming task. The agency has a comprehensive database of contaminated sites. But brownfields are not broken out as such. And that means nobody has an exact tally of them in Wisconsin — or how much money has been spent on them, or how many still need cleaning up.
“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. Sixteen years since Congress created the brownfields program, some communities are just now trying to locate their high-priority sites.
“I don’t have a shortlist,” said Andy Johnson, environmental resources coordinator for Marathon County, which got EPA funding on its third try to start an inventory this fall.
The brownfields label can leave a stigma, so some communities try to tackle the problem while avoiding the term.
“You’d be amazed at the number of different euphemisms we hear,” said Deborah Orr, an EPA brownfields coordinator in the Great Lakes region. “ ‘Opportunities list’ is a favorite.”
“Brownfield” is also a shifting, imprecise term. It doesn’t include factories that are currently operating but likely contaminated, for example.
Rather than funding one big comprehensive brownfields program, 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.
“Most of the Midwestern states are doing well in this area because they have to,” Orr said, given their long history of industrial pollution.
Yet gaps remain, as state officials have acknowledged. The grant program was intended to help communities with few resources — but such places are also less likely to have brownfields staff to write grants and navigate the federal bureaucracy.
Not always about the money
A six-acre pile of good clean dirt sits on an old DuPont chemical factory site at Carrollville, waiting to be spread over the remaining pollution on the east side. Aside from the dirt pile, the site is all mowed green grass, trees and prairie flowers, with a view of Lake Michigan. It almost looks like a golf course — except for the monitoring well pipes that stick out of the ground. It is in better shape than other parts of Carrollville.
DuPont is working with the city of Oak Creek, which envisions eventually taking over the property. The plan is to build a mix of residential and business buildings on the west side, while the east side becomes a public green space.
It’s a far cry from the alternative, which would be to secure the site and keep people off it.
Brownfields grants often make the difference. In this case, though, the incentive wasn’t money. DuPont has already spent between $10 million and $20 million on cleanup; most brownfields grants are in the thousands. What DuPont is getting is “finality,” according to Doug Fletcher, the company’s corporate remediation group project director.
The problem with these kinds of sites, Fletcher said, is that a company can never close the books on them, even after cleaning them up.
“If standards change in the future, or something else pops up at the site, or a remedy fails, the phone rings again, and you’re back out at the site,” Fletcher said.
Instead, DuPont signed up for the state’s Voluntary Party Liability Exemption program, which will eventually release DuPont from responsibility at Carrollville.
Since the VPLE program was created in 1994, 117 companies have completed it. Another 111 are in it currently.
It’s more expensive up front. The state, which will assume the liability, can require elaborate investigation of the contamination. And DuPont will have to clean up whatever is found.
But once it’s done, it’s done.
The new generation of brownfields
This spring, Wausau Paper closed its paper mill in Brokaw. 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.
Village President Jeffrey Weisenberger, who worked there for 35 years, hadn’t heard the term brownfield before.
“That fits this place to a T,” he said, upon hearing the definition.
It’s not officially a brownfield. But potential buyers would have some serious due diligence to do on this property. 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.
The mill’s story is a common one.
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.
The DNR, hearing of the Brokaw mill’s fate, offered some free environmental due diligence.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” Foss said.
Responding to what it called “the tide of new brownfield properties,” the agency 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, Weisenberger was one of the last four maintenance workers to be laid off in May. From his house, he can see the idle plant on one edge of town. He misses the noise, the traffic, the smoke.
“You hate to look at it,” the former mechanic machinist said. “I used to wake up and look out at the smokestacks, and I’d know what kind of day I was going to have at work.”
Now, the local gas station has closed — even the tavern.
“Now it’s a ghost town,” he said.