up an old mess
by Stephanie Hemphill
Minnesota Public Radio
Ashland, Wisc. - The waves lapping gently on the beach
at Kreher Park carry a thin film of oily scum. Bright
yellow signs warn people not to wade in the water or run
their boats in the bay.
It's not the kind of place that's likely to attract tourists.
But that's exactly what Ashland's leaders, like city administrator
David Frasher want to do.
"We want to redevelop this site in a way that enhances
the public's use and accessibility of the area,"
Frasher says. "And we want it to be pristine because
we think that's the reason people come to Chequamegon
Ashland is about 60 miles east of Duluth. Its natural
harbor was once busy with lumber mills, shipping, and
a manufactured gas plant. For seventy years, until 1949,
a company made gas to heat and light Ashland's homes.
Most cities had gas plants like this. The raw material
was coal or petroleum. By-products were tars and oils
in various thicknesses. Some of the waste was as solid
as roofing tar, some was as runny as used engine oil.
The gas company sold some of the by-products to other
industries. It dumped the rest through a pipe into Chequamegon
"So we have the legacy of history," says Jerry
Winslow, an engineer with Xcel Energy, formerly called
NSP. NSP bought the manufactured gas plant in 1976. Now
it's used as a place to repair equipment.
Winslow says other industries along the bay, including
a city landfill, added their own pollution over the years.
"Manufactured gas plant being one issue. Wood treating
being another issue with the same kind of coal tar products.
Landfill, which gets a little bit of everything."
Eight years ago the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
began studying the pollution problems here. The tars and
oils can cause cancer, and can damage reproductive and
Xcel and the DNR worked together to cover places on land
where the pollutants were bubbling to the surface. And
Xcel is slowly pumping the tars out of the deep aquifer
that runs under the old plant and into the bay.
Pollution in the bay
The problem right now is the bay itself. The pollutants
have settled on the bottom, and whenever there's a northeast
wind, they get churned up and rise to the surface.
This area of Chequamegon Bay was listed as a Superfund
site in 2002. So federal money was paying for the investigation.
Now the Superfund program is nearly broke. So the EPA
says Xcel should pay for the studies. Ashland's city manager,
David Frasher, doesn't like that idea.
"From our view, the data's been collected and re-collected
and collected again, mostly by Wisconsin DNR," Frasher
says. "And now we're going to go back and spend a
few more years collecting more data. And naturally we're
suspicious when the fox is guarding the henhouse. We just
want to make sure that somebody's watching the fox."
"Well, we've all been watching each other for years,"
replies Xcel's Jerry Winslow. He says the rules on Superfund
sites include plenty of oversight by both the federal
EPA and the Wisconsin DNR.
"We're not going to get to the end without all of
us working together on this," he says.
People in Ashland are wondering if they'll ever get
to the end. David Frasher says he wouldn't be surprised
if Xcel were purposely dragging its feet.
"I mean Xcel Energy's executives have told me themselves
this site is they believe at least $50 million to clean
up," he says. "Now with that figure in mind,
you can see the value in deferring that payment."
But pollution cleanups only get more expensive as time
goes by. Jerry Winslow has helped clean up several other
manufactured gas sites. There are about 50 former plants
in Wisconsin, and 30 in Minnesota. But most aren't so
complicated to clean up because they weren't located on
a lake or river.
"You don't have to worry about the fish," Winslow
says. "The terns, the birds, the whole ecosystem,
the worms, etc. etc. here we need to worry about that."
The EPA plans to decide by September whether Xcel should
take over the investigation. Xcel says it'll be at least
two more years before it comes up with options for clean-up.