Wausau engineer, DPW director rebuff proposed Environmental Justice resolution

By Shereen Siewert

Wausau’s environmental engineer said there are “zero” instances in which minority or low-income groups have been disproportionately affected by environmental consequences in the city, a direct contradiction to a 2012 application that secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding for brownfield cleanup plans.

Environmental Engineer Kevin Fabel’s comments are quoted in a memo by Department of Works Director Eric Lindman to members of the Public Health and Safety committee, which will review a proposed Environmental Justice resolution on Tuesday. The resolution, approved in March by the Liberation and Freedom Committee, asks Wausau to support an “equitable share of environmental benefits and community assets in all neighborhoods…that enhance the quality of life, such as parks and open spaces, trees, natural areas, community gardens, and the riverfront, as well as equal access to the city’s environmental and infrastructure investments” that support health and a sense of community.

Fabel, who has been environmental engineer for Wausau for more than eight years, rejected the idea that any minority groups or low-income neighborhoods have been disproportionately affected by the environmental issues that plague the city.

“In other words, I am aware of no Environmental Injustices which would require a new Environmental Justice Policy to correct, repair, or make good on, in the City of Wausau,” Fabel is quoted as saying.

But the city’s own application to the Environmental Protection Agency for a $200,000 Brownfields Planning Grant points specifically to the disproportionately high numbers of minority residents – Hmong in particular – and residents experiencing “various forms of economic distress” who were impacted by the East Riverfront District. The grant, signed by then-Economic Development Director Ann Werth, sought $200,000 in federal funding for environmental cleanup in the district based in part of the demographic makeup of the Census Tract.

The grant funded projects “to facilitate community involvement and conduct research, training and technical assistance necessary to develop area-wide plans and implementation strategies to facilitate brownfields assessment, cleanup, and subsequent reuse,” according to the EPA.

In the city’s application, Werth referred to studies documenting a wide variety of risk factors that significantly increase the Hmong population’s potential for being exposed to environmental contamination through ingesting locally caught fish containing high levels of PCBs, along with intensive gardening on urban plots with high incidences of contaminants in near surface soil. Further, Werth noted a “cultural tendency” of growing food at home that makes the Hmong population more susceptible to environmental hazards by consuming their own food in potentially tainted soil.

“This hazard is exacerbated by language barriers that can render precautionary warnings ineffective,” Werth wrote.

Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian has long been asking for Environmental Justice for his district, which includes several areas with documented pollution and is among the districts with the highest poverty rate. Environmental Justice is the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies,” according to the EPA.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, there have been five new DNR Environmental Repair Program sites in Wausau since 2019. ERP sites include those with industrial spills or releases that require long-term investigation, buried containers of hazardous substances or closed landfills that have caused contamination. Three of the five have been in the Thomas Street neighborhood. All five of the most recent ERP sites since 2019 are in low-income areas of the city, data show.

Under EPA standards, “fair treatment”means no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.

The resolution being considered in Wausau was forwarded to the city attorney on March 7 for review and returned to Kilian and Public Health and Safety Chair Lisa Rasmussen on May 7.

In his memo to the committee in advance of next week’s meeting, Lindman is sharply critical of the proposal and said that the “resolution does not seem to be a good start or beneficial to establishing good policy and staff direction moving forward.”

“It would be helpful to understand from the governing body where their priorities lie, what challenges the council feels need to be addressed, what needs to be improved and what is the overall objective of this type of resolution,” Lindman wrote. “None of these items are outlined in the resolution as written. One option that may be more beneficial and provide a more meaningful discussion would be for staff to outline our current public engagement policies and requirements for the council’s review and discuss requested changes and potential implications/benefits.”

The city’s Public Health and Safety Committee will take up the resolution during a meeting set for 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, June 29 at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau.

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