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Great Lakes Article:

U.S. plans to reroute river around toxic muck

Project will steer Little Menomonee past Superfund cleanup site

By DON BEHM
Milwuakee Journal Sentinel
Posted: 9/23/2002

A six-mile stretch of the Little Menomonee River on Milwaukee's northwest side will be rerouted at a cost of $10 million so that it no longer flows over mud laced with cancer-causing chemicals, federal officials have announced.

Creating a new riverbed is an extremely rare solution for preventing public contact with chemical wastes, but it is practical for this small stream, said Russ Hart, remedial project engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago.

"We're trying to accomplish two goals with this one step," Hart said. "We wanted to make sure the hazardous substances are out of the river. And by designing a new channel, we can return some of the natural meander to the stream."

"The work will provide a safe recreational corridor for the city," Hart said.

The Little Menomonee River flows out of wetlands on the Milwaukee County-Ozaukee County border before it enters the city's only federal Superfund priority cleanup site immediately downstream of W. Brown Deer Road.

From 1921 to 1976, heavy rains and spring floods washed creosote off the grounds of a wood preserving plant that operated on the river's banks south of the street. For all those years, black, gooey toxic waste flowed into the Little Menomonee, where it was carried six miles downstream to the confluence with the Menomonee River north of W. Hampton Ave.

Creosote contains chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. The chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans. People who have contact with the compounds can suffer skin burns, as Milwaukee residents learned in June 1971.

Twenty teenagers who had volunteered to remove trash from the river on a summer weekend that month received deep red skin burns after wading into the stream near N. 98th St. and W. Mill Road.

The public had not been aware of the presence of creosote in the Little Menomonee River prior to the incident, officials said at the time.

The former wood preserving plant was not listed with the Superfund program until 1985. Now, 17 years later, the EPA will begin overseeing the final three-year stage of its cleanup, Hart said.

Built in 1921

The T.J. Moss Tie Co. built the original plant in 1921. Workers there treated railroad ties with a mixture of fuel oil and creosote, a wood preservative derived from coal.

Timbers were stacked outdoors, allowing the chemicals to drip onto the soil. Creosote waste also was dumped into ponds and pits that drained into the river.

Kerr-McGee Chemical LLC in Oklahoma City bought the property in 1963 and operated the plant under the name Moss-American from 1965 until 1976, when it was shut down. Buildings were razed in 1978.

Later that year, Kerr-McGee donated 65 acres to Milwaukee County for parkland. After the site is restored, the county will maintain the open space as floodplain for the river, said Milwaukee County Supervisor Rob McDonald, who represents the area.

A 23-acre section of the Superfund site is owned by Union Pacific Railroad.

Kerr-McGee agreed to pay for the cleanup in 1991. The company estimates it will cost $30 million - a third of that to reroute the river - to do the job, said Debbie Schramm, Kerr-McGee's manager of corporate communications.

Beginning in early October, contractors for Kerr-McGee will excavate the first 1.14 miles of new channel for the narrow river, removing an estimated 25,000 cubic yards of clean soil, from W. Brown Deer Road downstream to the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad bridge north of W. Bradley Road.

When the river's flow is diverted to its new home sometime this winter, workers will dredge about 5,000 cubic yards of heavily contaminated muck from the former channel, according to the EPA's Hart. Then the old riverbed will be filled with soil from the new channel.

There is not adequate space in the river's floodplain from the railroad bridge to Bradley Road to accommodate a new channel. Consequently, muck will be dredged from that one-tenth of a mile stretch of the Little Menomonee to remove the PAHs.

Contaminated sediments will be stored at the former plant site while awaiting treatment. Chemicals will be removed so that the material can be placed as fill elsewhere on the property.

Completed next year

Next spring and summer, Kerr-McGee and the EPA will complete cleanup plans for the second stretch of the Little Menomonee, about 2.24 miles from W. Bradley Road downstream to Mill Road.

Work there, including the digging of a new channel, will begin in October 2003, according to Hart.

Cleanup of the final 2 1/2 miles of stream will be completed the following year.

As of December, Kerr-McGee already had spent $19 million on three earlier stages of the Moss-American cleanup, according to Schramm. The three activities included:

  • Removing 1,100 gallons of a heavy concentrate of creosote and fuel oil from a depth of 9 to 10 feet beneath the surface at the Moss-American property. Six wells slowly pumped out the chemicals from 1995 to 1999.
  • Installing a groundwater treatment system that began operating in the summer of 2000. For the remainder of this decade, air and nutrients will be injected below ground to spur bacteria to digest contaminants in groundwater.
  • Heating 137,000 tons of highly contaminated soil from the plant site. Thermal treatment destroyed the chemicals.
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